Long Bright River

—Also, the men wear tights, he said, so get over it in advance. The little girl’s parents have a Christmas party and invite her spooky uncle, who’s actually a good guy, and he gives her a doll. It’s called a nutcracker, and you can go ahead and get over that too. That night she falls asleep and has a long dream and that’s the rest of the ballet, he said. The nutcracker doll comes to life and becomes a prince and he fights off giant mice, takes her to a land of snowflakes, and then takes her to a place I forget the name of. It’s like Candy Land. The little girl and the prince watch while a few different dances are performed. The end, said Mr. Johns.

—Does she go back to real life after that? asked a boy in my class.

—I forget, said Mr. Johns. I think so.



* * *





    We had grown up less than three miles from the center of Philadelphia, but we only went there once a year, on New Year’s Day, to watch a dozen of our cousins and uncles and uncles’ bosses and uncles’ friends march in the Mummers Parade. It is possible, therefore, that I had laid eyes on the Academy of Music before—it’s right on Broad Street, part of the parade route—but I had certainly never been inside it. It’s a pretty brick building with high, arched windows and old-fashioned lanterns that burn unflaggingly near its front doors.

As we filed off the bus, our teachers lined up along the edge of the sidewalk, inserting themselves between the students and the traffic, ushering us with mittened or gloved hands into the lobby.

Again, I trailed Kacey, who, I noticed, was scuffing her feet: I could hear it on the sidewalk. Gee would be mad at her later. Kacey was like this, always: doing what she shouldn’t do, demanding a rebuke, daring the adults in her life to come down harder and harder on her, testing the limits of their anger. Whenever I could, I tried to distract her from this pursuit, hating to watch the punishment she inevitably received.

We entered the lobby and were stopped by the crowd. Today, what I remember most is the number of little girls who were there with their mothers, right in the middle of a school day. They were the same age as us, or a little younger. Every one of them was white. In comparison, our school group looked like the United Nations. They’d come in from the Main Line: I knew this even then. They were wearing beautiful knee-length coats in bright colors and, beneath them, dresses that looked like they were made for dolls: frilled, satin, silk, velvet, lace-trimmed and puff-sleeved. In them, they looked like jewels or flowers or stars. They wore white tights and black, polished, patent-leather Mary Janes, all of them, as if they were following some rule that only they knew about. Many of them had their hair pulled back tightly into buns, the kind I would later see the ballerinas wearing.

There were sixty or eighty Hanover grade school students in the lobby. We were clogging it. We didn’t know where to go.

—Go on ahead, said Mr. Johns, but he, too, looked uncertain. Finally an usher came over to him, smiling, and asked if he was from the Hanover grade school, and he looked relieved and said yes.

—Right this way, said the usher.

We filed by those girls and their mothers, who stared back at us, openmouthed, even the grown-ups. They stared at our puffy down jackets, our sneakers, our hair. It occurred to me that the mothers, too, must have taken the day off from their jobs. What did not cross my mind then was the possibility that they did not work at all. Every grown woman I knew had a job—or, more often, multiple jobs. About half of the men did.



* * *





I will never forget the moment the curtain rose. From the start, I was transfixed. There was snow—real snow, it seemed to me—falling onto the stage. Nothing could have prepared me for this. The exterior, and then the interior, of a large and beautiful house was shown, and inside that house were well-dressed children who were tended to by well-dressed adults. The children were given beautiful presents and then entertained by a series of life-sized doll-dancers. When the children fought, they were lovingly and carefully separated by parents more bemused than angry. There was a real orchestra playing in the pit. I felt in my own body the beautiful alien movements of the dancers on the stage, and in the music I heard strains of melody that revealed to me secrets I had never known about the world. I was, in fact, so moved that I began to cry: a fact I tried to keep hidden from the children around me. I let my tears fall silently down my face in the darkened theater. I tried not to sniff.

Soon, though, it became difficult to concentrate, for in the rows full of Hanover students, a mutiny was beginning.

To be fair, none of us had ever been taught to sit still for so long. Even at school there were breaks, many of them, from all this stillness. The other Hanover students knew they were supposed to be grateful, and they wanted to be good for Mr. Johns, but they didn’t know how to be. They fidgeted and whispered and broke every rule. Mr. Johns and the seven other teachers there leaned forward, often, to turn and glare. They pointed to their eyes and then at their students. I’m watching you. All of us had been taught many things in our lives: to do as we were told, to entertain ourselves, to shut up, to be absent. But never to sit in one place and watch something slow and abstract for three hours. It wasn’t a skill that most of us had.

Kacey, next to me, was losing it. She was squirming. One moment she hugged her knees, and the next she dropped her legs down against the chair with a thump. She lolled her head from side to side. She poked my shoulder, idly, and I elbowed her. Ow, Kacey whispered. She yawned with vigor. She pretended to fall asleep and wake up several times in a row.

There was a girl our age in front of Kacey, one of the ones we had seen in the lobby, her hair in a neat bun, her red dress coat folded tidily over the back of her seat. Her mother’s perfume had wafted back toward us when we first sat down. After a particularly violent motion from Kacey, the little girl glanced back at her, just once, and then whipped her head toward the stage once more.

Kacey leaned forward.

—What are you looking at, she whispered, right into the girl’s ear. I froze, watching as the girl edged nervously toward her mother, pretending not to have heard; then watching as Kacey, behind her, formed a fist and raised it. And for a strange and perfect moment, I thought that she would strike: I could see it happening, my sister’s hand colliding with the tense muscles at the back of the girl’s neck. Quickly, I reached out my hand to stop her. But the girl’s mother turned around at that moment, and—upon seeing Kacey’s pose—her mouth opened into a horrified O; and then Kacey, ashamed, lowered her hand. Then she settled back into her seat, tired, helpless. Resigned to something that neither of us, before that day, had understood.



* * *





Today, I’m not certain whether it was that girl’s mother who got us kicked out, or whether our teachers collectively decided to remove us. All I know is that, at intermission, we were herded back through a crowded lobby, back past those girls and their mothers, who were now waiting in long lines for sweets, back to our yellow buses, our furious teachers beckoning us along.

I had been wearing my cousin Bobby’s jacket the whole time, but at the last minute I removed it. As an adult, I am able to understand that this didn’t make sense: we were exiting into the cold. But I think, as a child, I wanted to signal to the other balletgoers in the lobby that I understood, that I had dressed up for the occasion, that I belonged there. That I was one of them. I’ll be back, I was saying, with my too-small cotton dress. Someday I’ll be back.

This small act of apology, however, failed to reach its targets, and instead was pounced upon by two Hanover fourth-graders, a boy and a girl, who burst into laughter.

—Why is she wearing that ugly-ass dress, said the boy, very loudly, earning the cheap laughter of a few other students around us. And like clockwork, Kacey—slightly ahead of me—turned on him.

She had been waiting for an excuse. She wore a painful smile on her face, in fact, almost as if she were relieved to have someplace obvious to land the punch that she swiftly and accurately launched in his direction. She’d been holding it in for so long. For most of her life, maybe.

—Kacey, no, I said, but it was too late.





NOW





After what Lafferty says, These girls, I feel I have no other choice than to tell Sergeant Ahearn that I don’t wish to be partnered with Eddie Lafferty anymore. I am willing to explain myself; I have even prepared a speech about our differences in style that would leave us both looking all right, in the balance, but before I can continue, Ahearn exhales, lengthily.

—Fine, Mickey, he says. He doesn’t even look up from his phone.



* * *





For a week, I work solo. I’m relieved to be alone again. I’m relieved to be able to stop when and where I choose to, to select which calls I respond to. And I’m especially relieved, now, to be able to call Bethany, the babysitter, and ask to speak to Thomas. Over the course of each long call, I tell him stories, or narrate what I’m passing, or tell him about my plans for our future. And I tell myself that, while it may not be the same thing as my physical presence, at least I am able to provide him with some intellectual stimulation, in this way. Besides, he’s becoming a very good conversationalist. It almost reminds me of having Truman next to me in the car.



* * *



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