“Ouch!” Summer says, looking over her shoulder at me. “Mom, you hurt me.”
I hold onto the back of her bodice, pulling the fabric away from her skin so I can refasten sequined ribbon to her dance costume. The entire length of the ribbon across the back has loosened, silver sequins trailing down. Summer shrugs; I hold my needle at the ready, waiting for her to stop moving. My daughter’s shoulder blades are smooth; unlike me as a thirteen-year old, she doesn’t have pimples.
“You refused to take off the costume. And I didn’t even poke you,” I say.
“I felt it. I know you can’t sew.”
True. I can barely hem jeans and Melanie, the head dressing room mom, enlisted me to repair the delicate organza and sequins for the snowflakes’ costumes. Three generations ago, my ancestors worked in New York garment factories but the skill is obviously not in the blood. Melanie must be desperate.
“I will poke you if you don’t stay still.”
Melanie’s husband Sam sits next to me, long legs sprawling. He’s the only adult near. Some parents gossip in the back of the auditorium of the Canyon Community House; a few have unfolded chairs to watch The Nutcracker dress rehearsal. The dads in charge of the props are backstage and the cadre of dressing room moms helps the dancers with costume changes in the room next to the stage.
Sam catches my eye, rolls his eyes in solidarity. But what does he know about teenage girls? His daughter is eight.
I tug on Summer’s shoulder straps to bring her closer and hold the sequin trim to the bodice. I push the needle through again. It meets resistance: this must be why thimbles are necessary. The auditorium is old, drafty, and Summer shivers. Her neck is long, bared by a tight bun of blond hair.
On the stage, the younger children practice the battle scene: the mouse army of the Rat King against the toy soldier army of the Nutcracker. Ms. Esme, the ballet mistress, watches, feet tapping to Tchaikovsky.
Away from the battle scene, Melanie stands with her scissors a dagger in her hands. The Sugar Plum Fairy slowly turns before her, modeling a new tutu pulled over black ballet shorts and a leotard faded into gray. Lavender tulle cascades down the muscular legs of the fifteen-year-old dancer. Melanie is the kind of woman I want to both hate and impress, an Ivy League-educated curator with a maintained pixie-cut and yoga-perfect posture. Even though I like to tell myself I’m no lightweight, it’s hard when I’m not in front of my students at the community college.
Melanie cuts into the tulle. She shows no fear. She knows what she’s doing. She doesn’t cut the tulle too short. She cuts it so the skirt stands out in scalloped folds. Lavender tulle floats to the ground like cut hair. I want to be Melanie; I want to destroy and create with confidence.
The Sugar Plum Fairy twirls, the layers of her skirt undulating. Legs long, stomach flat. Only a bit of acne at her hairline. Melanie says, “Perfect.”
Summer says, “Geez, Mom, stop poking me. Can’t Melanie do this?”
I haven’t poked Summer; I’ve stuck the needle into the padding of my finger. A ball of gleaming red wells up. It’s oddly hypnotic, the sphere balancing bright against the paleness of my skin. I suck on my finger before the blood stains Summer’s white costume. The blood tastes metallic and I’m sure I’m going to get blood poisoning. When I was young, a neighbor got blood poisoning from an embroidery needle prick, a red line running up her veins from her finger to stop her heart.
“I’m done.” I stand back. Summer turns to me, flouncing her skirt. On the front of the bodice, sequined ribbons twist into snowflakes. I’m glad I didn’t have to repair those ribbons. Her breasts are small swells under white organza and shiny sequins. Melanie had to take the bodice in slightly; the costume was originally made for a girl with larger breasts.
I expect her to say thanks, but she’s thirteen. She says, “Don’t miss the cue for the Gigue.”
I sigh. We’ve danced the mother-daughter dance four years and I missed our cue once during rehearsals last year. That was enough to damn me for eternity. Summer didn’t speak to me for an entire day. Tonight, I hope she doesn’t notice I forgot my pink tights. The skirt I wear for the Gigue is ankle-length, not a cute tulle ballerina skirt showing off my legs, so it should hide my pale skin.
Summer pirouettes en pointe. She’s new to pointe shoes, toes cushioned with lamb’s wool, soaking blisters in hot water. She spent hours at home breaking in the shoes, walking on demi pointe around the house so they would mold to her feet.
She stops in front of Sam. She cocks her head, one hand on her hip, her sheer skirt revealing slim thighs.
“Hey, Drosselmeier. How’s your horse?”
When I was in junior high, the popular girls would flirt with the young Algebra teacher, twirling feathered blonde hair around their fingers, moving hips under wrap-around Danskin skirts. I narrow my eyes.
Sam glances at me and shifts in his seat a little. Good, he’s uncomfortable. In Ms. Esme’s The Nutcracker, he plays Drosselmeier. He cavorts on stage, tender and creepy, as a Drosselmeier should be. In real life, he’s a mortgage broker and the scion of an old Canyon ranch family. He sometimes rides his horse to daytime rehearsals on a hiking trail through the state park to the auditorium, tying the horse to an old hitching post like he’s a cowboy visiting a saloon. A little too much, if you ask me.
“Pueblo split his hoof,” he says quietly. I didn’t know Summer even liked horses. I suddenly envision her as that Russian nesting doll I bought years ago at a flea market, before I married, cracking open one secret to find yet another secret within. How many dolls are inside?
Sam’s daughter, dressed as a mouse, climbs on his lap. Her hair falls from its bun and he combs his fingers through her thick brown hair.
On the stage, the prince—another teenage girl, since no older boys take ballet with Ms. Esme—leads Clara to the Land of Snow.
“Almost time for the snowflakes, Summer. You’re going to miss your cue,” I say. I admit to feeling satisfaction.
“Geez, Mom,” she says. She runs backstage, all billowy white and glittering silver sequins, awkward in shoes meant for dancing.
“Somehow it’s always my fault,” I say.
“Kids,” Sam agrees affably. It’s an agreement or perhaps a deflection. “All the girls like my paint, Pueblo. Summer asked if she could ride him. But Pueblo’s half-wild.” He winks at me. “A little like me.”
Is he flirting with me? I don’t think anyone has flirted with me since I married Daniel. At least, I hadn’t noticed.
The dark strands of his daughter’s hair spill over Sam’s palms like oil. He separates it into three equal parts and braids. He’s far defter than I am with Summer’s hair; tendrils don’t slip out, the narrowing plait is straight. He twists a hair band at the thin end of the braid.
He sees me watching him, smiles lazily.
“Every cowboy worth his salt can braid.”
His fingers are long, tan, nails cut straight with a little dirt beneath them. Calluses on the finger pads. They are guitar-strumming hands. Hands that can rein in a bucking horse. Hands that know how to build a fire.
I catch my breath. I want his hands in my hair.
* * *
I don’t miss my cue. I’m actually early, standing against the wall to keep clear of the dressing room moms helping dancers into costumes and re-pinning buns. All of the cool moms are dressing room moms. They wear black aprons like make-up artists, pockets full of bobby pins, ribbons, and hairnets. Melanie’s pockets sag with her shears and a paper of threaded needles; she’s ready for any costume repairs.
I’ve never been invited to be a dressing room mom.
I’m already dressed in my costume, white peasant blouse and full, elastic-waisted skirt, the kind I wore in the early ’90s with footless black leggings. Even with the black belt cinching my waist, there’s no way to make the outfit flattering. If I take a deep breath, the Velcro fastening the belt unlatches, and the belt shoots off. If I were wearing my tights, I’d feel like a stuffed sausage. Perhaps I can “forget” to bring the tights for the performance.
Summer doesn’t even notice I’m early. “Where’s Dad?” she says.
I sigh. That was also the first sentence she spoke, at eighteen months.
“At a concert. Some punk band.”
Last year, Daniel and I brought brown, waxed boxes from Whole Foods’ deli counter and watched each dress rehearsal, pulling the folding chairs close. When we finished eating, we held hands. This year, he’s at the reunion tour of some punk band at a club in the Valley. The Valley is not punk rock. Nor is Daniel anymore. The piercings in his ears are scars, he wears white button-down shirts with red ties to work, plays the harmonica, won’t travel abroad. The only thing about him that is still punk rock is his refusal to work for a corporate law firm. Only legal aid will do.
If only there were more things about him that were still punk rock.
Summer throws a vine-patterned scarf over her shoulders. “The Brood,” she says. “A seminal L.A. punk band. With iconic songs such as ‘BJ Madness’ and ‘Circle Jerking.’”
“Summer!” I say, but I can’t help laughing. She’s copying Daniel’s tone exactly, even the way he raises one eyebrow when he lectures.
Melanie glares at us, pantomiming a finger to her lips. “Maddy, Summer. They can hear you on stage,” she hisses.
Summer ignores her, doesn’t lower her voice. “Dad played some of the songs to me on the way to school. What is a circle jerk, anyway?” She scuffs her ballet slippers on the floor. The Gigue is not a pointe dance.
My face is hot. “Uh …well . . . it’s the name of another punk band, but also, it’s when—”
The dressing room moms don’t pause in tying ribbons in the younger girls’ hair for the Mother Ginger dance, but their straining to listen is almost palpable. Melanie cuts her eyes at me. She probably believes in calling anatomical parts by their proper names and has sat down with her eight-year-old and explained where babies come from, with the aid of a Waldorf-approved book.
I take a deep breath. “Summer, let’s talk about this later, when we’re alone.”
“It’s no big deal.”
I wonder if she already knows, if she just asked me to see me blush.
The Flutes dance off the stage, four of the older girls in baby blue cloche hats tipped rakishly on their heads and flutes to their mouths.
“Come on, Gigues,” Ms. Esme calls and we run out onto the stage, take our places.
There are three other mother-daughter pairs this year for the Gigue. The Gigue is not part of the original Nutcracker. Ten years ago, Ms. Esme choreographed the dance to a score Tchaikovsky left out of the ballet so she could dance with her teenage daughter. The Gigue is a fast-paced folk-dance. We are only on stage for forty seconds. It feels like eternity.
We flip our scarves around and skip in circles arm-in-arm, and take a bunch of steps I don’t even know the names of, although Summer does. The line of mothers moves stage right while the daughters move stage left. Then we sashay toward each other again.
Summer and I are doing okay; we’re moving in time with the other couples. That’s the thing. Ms. Esme can forgive any mistake, the mothers’ half-assing the ballet steps, as long as we’re in time.
I’m never nervous during the dance, or even during the performance, since the stage lights are so bright I can’t see the audience. But now I can feel Sam’s eyes on us as we twirl. On me. When I bend over my leg so the scarf brushes my feet, I lean a little deeper, and wonder if the neck of my peasant blouse gapes so Sam can see my breasts. I don’t think my breasts are too bad for a forty-something woman.
I twirl Summer. We lean with our hands on our hips and kiss each other. The music ends with a big crescendo, our arms around each other. I’m breathless. Even with the bright lights on us, I see Sam watching us, his hands deep in the pockets of a long wool coat.
I love a man in a coat.
He gives me a thumbs-up.
“Good good,” Ms. Esme says. “Ariella, curve your arms into an arc. Summer, remember to point your toes.” She pauses. “Maddy, where are your stockings?”
Damn. She noticed. I get the same tightness in my stomach I get when I see a policeman, that I’ve done something horribly wrong. “I— I forgot them,” I say.
“Make sure you remember them tomorrow.”
As we file out, Summer glares at me.
* * *
I fall asleep on the living room couch waiting for Summer to come home. Daniel wakes me first, shaking my shoulder. His hair has absorbed all of the smoke from the club. The television gleams blue, playing the credits of Pretty in Pink.
“Come to bed,” he says. His breath is yeasty and sour with beer.
“When Summer comes home.”
“Party with the big girls from The Nutcracker.”
“She’s now one of the big girls.”
“So she is.” I pull the scratchy wool blanket over me. “She’ll be home soon. Curfew’s at midnight.”
Summer waits until 11:55 to come in, when I’m halfway through Sixteen Candles and the coyotes’ yips echo against the hillsides. Her hair’s still pulled into her ballerina bun and her cheeks blush pink with the cold. She holds her boots in one hand, her red socks bright under the hem of her jeans. The scent of a skunk comes in with her.
“Did you have fun?” I ask.
She starts a little, as if I’ve surprised her, then giggles. “Hi Mom,” she says and drops her bag on the side table and her boots next to it. “You didn’t need to wait up for me.”
“Just in case you needed a ride. I didn’t want to miss your call.”
Her eyes are bright. “I told you I’d get a ride.” She speaks carefully, enunciating each word.
She pulls the bobby pins from her bun, setting them on the table beside her purse. When she shakes her hair down, I smell skunk again, dissipating into the air. But it’s not skunk. I remember sitting on my balcony in college, passing a joint as we watched the windows of the fraternity next door.
“Get to bed, Summer.”
She smiles at me. Kisses my cheek, something’s she’s not done for a year. “’Night, Mom.”
She thinks she’s gotten away with it.
* * *
Daniel’s on his side, face turned away from me, but his breathing is shallow. He’s an insomniac, although the alcohol should have helped. As I slip into bed, he rolls toward me, his hand sliding down my hips and between my legs. I push his hand away.
“Daniel, she’s been smoking pot,”
“Good for her,” Daniel says. Maybe I was wrong about him not being punk enough. Maybe I was wrong about wanting him to be more punk.
“Oh, Maddy, we all did it. She’s experimenting. Come closer.” He slurs his words. I press my palm against his chest, holding him back.
“A little pot never hurt anyone.” His mouth nuzzles my neck. His stubble scratches my skin.
“So we should do nothing?”
“There’s nothing to do.” His tongue grazes my shoulder.
“It’s late. I’m teaching tomorrow.” But I roll on top of him. It’s been a while.
He pulls away from my kiss. “You have two heads.”
“Are you that drunk?”
“Ambien. Must have just kicked in.” His voice is groggy, dreamlike.
I slip off of him and turn my back. He’s probably been asleep all along. Sex-sleeping is a side effect of the drug. I hope his attitude about pot is also.
He sighs deeply, then snores deeply. He only snores when he’s taken Ambien.
What kind of punker takes sleeping pills?
* * *
The kitchen windows let in the morning light, harsh and bright, exposing the spiderwebs on the windowsills and the crumbs I’m always sweeping up at the base of the cabinets. Daniel stumbles into the kitchen, cheeks darkened with the beginning of a beard and smudges under his eyes, as if he were dedicated not only to feeling hung-over, but looking hung-over. Summer doesn’t look up from the stream of soymilk she’s pouring into her corn flakes.
Daniel empties the French press into a travel mug. I haven’t even had a cup yet. I light the pilot under the kettle to make another pot.
“We need to talk about that issue,” I say.
“You know.” I nod my head slightly toward Summer. She scrolls through Instagram and spoons cereal to her mouth.
“Ah, that. Didn’t we already talk about it?” he says. “I’ll be home late—need to work on an appellate brief.”
I clench my teeth. “Daniel—”
Summer looks up. “You’re not going to be at rehearsal tonight?”
“I’ll see you at the performance tomorrow, sweetie.” Daniel kisses the top of Summer’s head and the door swings shut behind him.
Great. It’s all up to me now. I’ll have to look online for strategies on talking with teenagers about drugs. I haven’t even followed up on her question about circle jerks. Who allowed me to be the mother of a daughter?
I take a deep breath. “Summer, you asked a question last night— ”
“I already Googled it.” She pushes her bowl away. A lone corn flake floats in the milk. It must be soggy.
* * *
The last dress rehearsal is not going well. The little girls melt down in their mice costumes and the prince dropped Clara during Snow. The dressing room moms panic over lost flower costumes. Melanie flips quickly through the racks of costumes, hangers screeching over the rods.
Summer and I wait for our cue in the dressing room. I’ve remembered my tights— although Summer hasn’t noticed, or at least said anything. I flex my foot and then point it in the ballet slippers, an exercise that’s good for shin splints.
She rolls her eyes. “Do you think you’re going to pull some muscle or something just by this dance?”
That’s exactly what I think. I’m worried about the old hamstring injury ten years ago, the same hamstring that’s always too tight, the hip that sometimes gets wonky during pigeon pose, the shins that ache after a hike.
“You have to be more careful when you get older,” I say.
“You’re always too careful,” Summer says.
I don’t usually think that’s one of my flaws. Perhaps I’m not punk enough.
Summer twirls in her green peasant skirt. She’s tied her shawl so it’s crossed over her chest and knotted at the middle of her back. As she faces away from me, she says, “You know, I’m not doing Nutcracker next year.”
“You say that every year.”
She comes to a stop, facing me. Her head tips. “Well, I guess The Nutcracker’s good for Stanford.”
I cringe at the mention at Stanford. I’m sure she’s focused on Stanford because both of my degrees are from the rival school, Berkeley. Daniel keeps telling me, “Not everything is about you,” but I’m sure this is.
Summer continues, “But even if I dance, I’m not doing the Gigue with you. This is the last time.”
I complain about the Gigue to the other parents and to Daniel, but I like doing it. I like practicing it with Summer, taking time to go to Ms. Esme’s studio, watching us in the long mirror on the wall with our full skirts swaying. Her words are like a knife in my side, a dull knife, but a knife nevertheless.
I try to think what a good mother would say, one who isn’t injured by her daughter’s vagaries, one who doesn’t take things personally. But I can’t think of anything, and the music starts for the Gigue and we run on the stage.
* * *
After the rehearsal, I wait at the doors of the Community House for Summer. She’s in a circle with some of the older girls, black Ugg boots pulled over sweatpants. The neckline of her pink sweater slips over one shoulder, Flashdance-style, exposing pale skin and the beige strap of her leotard. But of course, she hasn’t seen Flashdance; it’s not streaming on Netflix. She laughs at something one of the girls says, the girl who plays Clara, and she seems so comfortable with them, although all of the girls are at least two years older. I would have given anything at that age to be so relaxed in my skin.
Perhaps Clara brought the pot to the party. Her parents are hippies, raw-food vegans, vocal against the government chemtrail conspiracy. They probably grow plants in their back yard. I’d focused on grading student essays on the Cold War instead of thinking about Summer smoking pot, but the ten minutes in the car is the perfect time to talk to her. She will be trapped.
Once Summer finishes with the girls, and I realize I’ve lost my phone, then find it in the restroom, only Sam, Ms. Esme, and her husband are left, blocking Drosselmeier’s movements on the stage.
I drive down the Community House’s driveway to the boulevard. The boulevard snakes through the Canyon, following the edge of the creek bed—still drought-dry in December—two-lane highway, hairpin turns. There are no streetlights. My headlights illuminate bone-white sycamore trunks growing along the creek, improbably steep roads climbing chaparral-covered hills. At this time of night, no traffic comes toward us. I glance at Summer next to me, her face reflected in the passenger side window, lips in a straight line, her blond hair tight in its bun, her hands folded on the purse on her lap.
“Summer,” I say, and then I have to clear my throat.
She doesn’t turn from the window.
I think about those commercials from the ’80s, the one with the egg frying in a pan: This is your brain on drugs. I remember laughing at them when I was high.
“Summer,” I say again. “Look, I know you were smoking pot last night at the party.”
She turns to me, her eyes wide. “I wasn’t.”
I’ve taken the wrong tack; she can always deny. “Well, let’s say that you were. Or that you were offered some. I don’t want you to feel pressured about accepting. I mean, sometimes it’s fun to experiment, just to say you have, until you realize how dumb you sound when smoking . . . ” How incompetent can I be? Summer doesn’t say anything. She’s giving me a long enough rope to hang myself. “Have you ever been offered any pot?”
As I round a curve, a deer stands in a driveway, so still that I think it’s a Christmas decoration, destined for fairy lights wrapped around its horns or a wreath around its neck. Then the deer is in the middle of the road. I brake and my tires shriek as the back fishtails and skids toward the creek. I jolt forward as the car hits something. The front windshield spiderwebs. Metal screeches against metal as the car’s hood crashes against the guardrail. The car shudders as it comes to a rest.
My heart beats in my ears. I am shaking. Fear tastes like blood in my mouth.
Her eyes are wide, hands still braced against the glove box. “I’m okay,” she says. In a louder voice, “Okay.”
Summer reaches over me and turns the keys in the ignition and hands the key chain to me. She presses the hazard light button and a ticking fills the car.
“No cell reception here. Of course.”
“We can always walk home, we’re not far.” I get out of the car. My legs buckle and I hold onto the car for support. “And you know this Canyon, there’s always crashes and someone always calls the police.” My voice is more reassuring than I feel.
“What did we hit?”
“A deer. I think.”
I circle the car. The deer lies on the dirt shoulder of the road, pale brown in the strobe of the hazards, side covered in blood. A stag, with antlers branching from its forehead. One leg crooked.
“It’s still breathing,” Summer says. She’s at my side. I didn’t even hear her door open.
She kneels down. I think of deer ticks and injured animals attacking people who try to help. The deer draws a ragged breath.
“Don’t touch it.”
It tries to raise its head. Antlers weigh the head down. I wonder how old it is.
“We need to get him help,” she says.
Another breath, or half of a breath, its side expanding, and the deer shudders.
The deer is still.
“Summer, I think it’s dead,” I say.
“It’s so beautiful,” Summer says.
But it’s not. The fur is mangy and it smells like an animal, musky and heavy and wild. I want to say something to Summer about how life works, in the natural world, it’s better that the deer has died. But I can’t say anything.
I’m more worried about my car. The right fender is crushed against the guardrail—which luckily held, or else we’d be in the creek bed—and the hood is dented where the deer hit it.
The hazard lights blink on and off. A rhythm like a heartbeat.
Headlights sweep across the boulevard. We’re so vulnerable. A car could hit us as it takes the curve too fast, a serial killer could stop under the guise of a Good Samaritan. I shouldn’t have let Summer out of the car.
“Get in the car, Summer.”
She obeys immediately instead of questioning me.
A pick-up truck comes toward us, the headlights so bright that I shield my eyes. It pulls up behind my car. Don’t serial killer usually drive white vans? What kind of car did the Hillside Strangler drive?
Someone gets out, silhouetted in the brightness of his car’s lights, coattails flaring behind him so at first I think he’s a gunslinger in an old Western. I clench the keys between my knuckles, just like I was taught in self-defense classes long ago. I’m shaking again.
“Maddy, is that you? Are you guys alright?”
It’s Sam, hair still slicked back like Drosselmeier.
“Yeah.” And then before I can stop the words, I say, “I’m so glad to see you.”
He smiles that slow lazy smile again and nods at my hand, still clenching the keys. “Who were you expecting?”
I loosen the keys from my hand, feeling a bit foolish. “You never know what danger there is,” I say.
“True,” he says. I’m wearing yoga pants and a long belted sweater but when he looks at me I feel exposed.
Summer opens the driver side door and says, “Can I get out now since it’s only Sam?”
“Only Sam?” he says.
I lean toward her, grateful that I don’t need to look at Sam. “I shouldn’t have let you out before. It’s too dangerous.” Summer slips to the passenger seat and crosses her arms on her chest.
“Let’s see the damage,” Sam says. He saunters over to the front end of the car. “Looks like you got yourself a six-pointer.”
The deer sprawls on the dirt. Come daylight, there’ll be flies, maggots, the unrelenting cycle turning the deer back into dust.
“What should we do with it?”
“I know a guy.”
In the Canyon Messenger, I’d read about a group of homeschoolers dressing a deer. Last year, the winners of the Canyon Chili Cookoff won with molé venison chili. Someone will want this deer.
Perhaps Sam will wear the antlers at a Halloween party, like a horned Celtic god, the deerskin girded around his hips. I imagine dancing with him, my hands where his skin meets the scratchy fur of the deer. I hope he doesn’t notice my blush.
The hazards pulse. Like we’re in a nightclub. I giggle.
“You’re shivering,” Sam says. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
I shake my head.
He moves closer to me, raises his arm. His skin garish in the glare of the hazards. Is he going to touch me, take me into his arms? What do we look like to Summer, sitting in the front seat? I step back.
“Come on, guys.” Summer’s voice is loud in the silence.
Sam drops his arms. “You live close, right? Let’s see if we can get your car started. Then you can deal with everything tomorrow.” He goes around the deer, checks where the car hit the guardrail, kneels at the wheel well. A moment later he’s got a crowbar from his truck and is doing something to the wheel well.
“Try the car,” he says.
I get into the driver’s seat, turn the key in the ignition, back the car up. No grating of the wheel on metal.
I roll down the driver’s window and he leans in.
“I think you’re good to go. Let me know if you need help tomorrow morning.”
“Thanks,” I say.
He touches my shoulder through the window. Pale white moths glimmer in the hazards. “You should take the hazards off,” he says.
“Goodnight,” I say. He moves off and I pull out. The deer is a featureless lump on the side of the road. As headlights come toward me, light runs across each spiderweb of broken glass.
Daniel’s car is parked in the driveway, but the lights in the house are off.
“Mom,” Summer says.
“I—I—oh, forget it. Whatev,” Summer says. “I need to go to sleep.” She jumps out of the car, running up the stairs. Was she going to admit to smoking pot? I rest my head on the steering wheel for a moment, the adrenaline of the accident wearing off. Then I get out.
Daniel sprawls in the bed, sleeping. I shake his shoulder and he mutters something about an earthquake, and then curls away from me, snoring. He’s taken another Ambien.
* * *
At the performances, the dressing room moms drink vanilla flavored vodka, the kitchen parents drink Jack Daniels, and the backstage dads down shots of tequila. I’m not drinking anything although I help out in the kitchen. Daniel’s not working backstage this year; he’s sitting in the audience, talking to people I don’t know. After intermission, I run out of the kitchen into the chill air, intending to circle the back of the auditorium to the dressing room to change. I’ve three dances before Gigue comes on. Outside, near the backstage entrance and a pile of discarded lumber, Sam leans against the wall, drinking out of a red plastic cup with “Drosselmeier” written in black Sharpie along the side.
“Hey, Maddy,” he says. He’s wearing his black velvet Drosselmeier coat.
He makes me conscious of the way I move, the way I breathe.
“What are you doing here?”
“Hiding out; I need some quiet.” He takes a drink from his cup. “Want some?” He holds the cup toward me. It smells like vodka.
I shake my head.
“How’s the car?”
I shake my head again. A strand of hair falls out of my ponytail. I push it back behind my ear. “We’ll see what insurance says.” I take a deep breath. I can feel how close he is to me. “The deer was gone this morning.”
“Yep. It’s going to be stew and jerky.”
“Thank you so much for last night. I wasn’t very capable—”
The strand falls back into my eyes. Sam leans forward and brushes it back, tucks it behind my ear. The tip of his finger grazes my cheek.
I close my eyes. He smells like sweat and something faintly citrus, those small tangerines I buy in winter in a net bag that Summer devours. A faint chemical smell rises off the velvet coat. Mothballs.
He’s not smiling when I open my eyes.
His fingers interlace mine. For a few minutes, we are quiet. I concentrate on how his fingers feel. Last night, I clenched keys between my fingers.
“You know,” he says, “I had to give up my office in Santa Monica and work from home. Melanie travels a lot. She’ll be in Boston next week.” He doesn’t look at me.
I’m standing on the edge of a cliff, thinking about jumping off into the void.
“If you want to get together . . . ” Sam looks at me. He doesn’t want to say it. I have the power.
I wish I could say no. Or I don’t know.
But I jump off the cliff.
* * *
Backstage, Summer stands next to me, her hands at her hips. We run out at the musical cue. The spotlights are bright in our faces; afterwards I see red afterimages of expanding circles. With the other mother-daughter couples, we follow the steps of the Gigue. Summer and I twirl, our elbows linked. We glide away from each other and then glide back, circling around each other. This is how it is: moving away from each other and then moving back. I can live with that.
Lori Sambol Brody lives in the mountains of Southern California. Her short fiction has been published in Tin House Flash Fridays, New Orleans Review, WhiskeyPaper, alice blue review, Atticus Review, and elsewhere. She can be found on Twitter at @LoriSambolBrody and her website is at lorisambolbrody.wordpress.