She has no idea what she got herself into. I’m sure a simple thank-you would have been fine, but no, I’m showing my gratitude by telling the world how inspired I was by those stories and writing my own. So she finds herself showing up sometimes, in places like my holiday coming out story. And in today’s holiday time story, which was inspired by her determination to have me see myself in another art form, dance. I don’t remember the details, so let me start by saying that this is a completely fictionalized, highly dramatized, and frighteningly accurate version of the story.
That last part is a joke, as far as I know. Read on...
She hadn’t let the doll go by unseen. For all the other girls, the dolls were a treasure. We’d moved up in the Nutcracker world – just last year, some of us were crawling around on the stage playing Babies or Mice. But we would be regarded as undignified babies no more. Now, as fourth and fifth graders, we were old enough to have a proper role, as the Girls who danced with the star of the show. These dolls, our props, our pride, were our ticket to the world of ballet, a world we’d been crawling beneath as mere children – now, we would point our toes and dance as real ballerinas. Or something.
It wasn’t this way for me, of course. Not anymore. My doll was the only one of its kind, the only freak. It wasn’t like that the day I got it. I remembered being thrilled as the others that day, climbing into the back of my mom’s van after rehearsal, stroking the doll’s peach face, looking into her eyes, which seemed less bright then, and smiling until my mom looked over her shoulder at me and pressed her foot on the brake, in spite of the line of cars behind us.
“What is that?” she said, and immediately the doll felt wrong in my hands, like it was growing warm, like a hot potato. Cars were honking behind us, waiting for my answer, since she wouldn’t move without it, and I was suddenly tempted to toss the doll out the window, though I wasn’t sure why.
“It’s my doll,” I said. “For the show.”
“That’s the doll they gave you? You don’t see anything wrong with that?” She looked me in the eye as she said this, but this time she wasn’t waiting for my answer. She turned the van around, right there in the middle of the road, and went back to the ballet studio to make a fuss. My mother, always the only one to make a fuss.
So there I was, the day of opening night, my mother’s fuss replacing my pride with shame. As my mother explained with satisfaction after she returned from arguing with Miss Pierce, my ballet instructor, now the doll would look like me.
I looked up, found a space in the mirror that didn’t have a dancer applying makeup in it, frowned and touched my own face. Did this thing really look like me? Dark brown dye was sticking to its peach skin like tar on an unfinished road. It gathered in gobs at the corners of its eyes, as forgotten streaks of it dried in drips on the doll’s backside. I couldn’t help feeling that this doll was destroyed, never meant to be seen on the grand Nutcracker stage.
“Come on, we’re on in two minutes!” one of other Girls called to me as she rushed by.
I set the doll down in the cubby. It would have to stay behind.
The warmth of the stage lights sizzled into the dark space back stage, our bodies sweating already as we fidgeted, waiting for our cue. No matter how much I mimed holding onto the doll onstage, I knew Miss Pierce would notice right away that it was missing, and I would probably be hearing about it as soon as we finished our dance. But she wasn’t the one I was worried about. I knew where my mother would be sitting – second row – and I could feel her eyes on me even backstage.
My heart forgot a beat, and our musical cue dropped in its place. I couldn't draw a smile from the depths of my nervous energy, but I pointed my toes and glided onto the stage with the others, waiting a full eight counts before I let my eyes fall to where my mother was sitting.
She wasn’t there.
Her red seat glowed in its emptiness. My mom knew my cue better than I did. She had to know that I was dancing. Where was she? I tried to breathe, tried to feel relieved, remembered that at least now she wouldn’t have to see that I’d left the doll behind. But it wasn’t working. Did I look as alone as I felt, the only one on stage without a doll? There was something else I was looking for as I fell a half-step behind, scanning the pale crowd for her face. I was searching for another face like mine.
Now I was behind, and alone, and my mother wasn’t even watching. The stage exit was just a few steps away, the building exit just a few feet from there. I could slip away now, let these people forget I ever tried to be a part of their show.
Before I could, though, a door at the back of the auditorium opened, and there they were. Two faces like mine. My mother, with unending determination gleaming in her all-seeing eyes, coming down the aisle toward the stage, holding above her head the dark doll I’d left behind. I watched her soar toward me – not my mother, who was more charging than soaring, but the doll gliding above her head. Maybe she did look like me, after all. Swimming through the school of white faces, her dark face aglow beneath the lights, she reminded me more of myself than ever before.
That was my mother, trying to add some color to this world. And that was my doll.
Miss Pierce was in the crowd flailing her arms, trying to stop her. The only thing worse than having a dollless girl in her show would be to have an interruption in it. But nothing could stop my mom. She stopped where she was, lifted her strong arms and sent my doll flying toward me.
Never mind that my doll didn’t look like the others. Never mind that I wasn’t the star of the show, and to catch her I’d have to step out of line with a leap, as if I was a star. Never mind that the crowd had never seen a black girl dance like this before, and they might never again, because no sane choreographer would put together such a routine.
As I leapt into the air and my little dark doll and I moved toward each other, I understood who my mom wanted me to be. Somebody who could look into the mirror, and smile.
Let’s start now, I thought. Let them see us smile, dark doll.