The oily paste on my lips tastes like dried lotion as my tongue shapes the outside of my shocking red lips. My grandmother applies the red tube that was once hers when she was my age. As she carefully brightens the pink shade of skin that covers my teeth, I feel grown up and professional, like a businesswoman or better yet, like a prima ballerina. Then I skip off backstage.
As the soft, soothing music fades, the perfectly postured ten-year-olds tiptoe off the stage. Behind them trails a mysterious blackness as the deep red curtains slide to meet the hard wooden stage. The teacher rushes my class of five-year-olds into two parallel lines. In front of me lies the empty stage, inviting me and my fellow ballerinas to dominate, within seconds. The uncomfortable feeling of the lipstick fades and the butterflies begin to settle in, fluttering as if they are contained in my stomach, and will do anything to escape. In the back of my mind, I hear the hushes and last-minute fixings of costumes.
One ballet slipper brushes in front of the other in time with the soft music playing throughout the high school auditorium. I look out into the audience in search of my mother and grandmother. All I can see is black, except for the occasional flash of a loving parent's camera capturing the moment of their child's first ballet recital. My body wants to dance. I don't have to think about what the next step will be. I let my body take control of my mind. The familiar face of my ballet teacher is visible. She is perched on her knees right in front of the stage. Her pink cheeks, thick blue eye shadow and bright-colored lipstick stand out in the darkness. She motions the next step with her hands in case we forget. She raises her two pointer fingers up to her pink cheeks and emphasizes her cheesy smile. I know that I can't smile any wider. The smile on my face is twice as broad as hers.
What could make a five-year-old dancer any happier? I have my mother's full attention, I am wearing makeup like a big girl, and I am dressed in a pink leotard with a rainbow ribbon in my hair to match my tutu. A burst of satisfaction shudders from my pointed toes to my dirty-blond hair as a chill goes up my spine. I am so happy. I hope that Mother is proud of me. The music makes a subtle conclusion and I flutter off the stage like the big ten-year-old ballerinas did before me.
The whole dance feels like a blur, like when you look at your reflection in still water. As I step backstage, the smell of gooey chocolate-chip cookies fills the air. As I go to join my friends, my mind is at ease. I can't wait to see Mommy and Grandmother's faces; they will be so proud of me, their big girl ballerina.
Grandparents, mothers, fathers, siblings and friends start to pour into the room. Hugs are received. All I can see is pink and red roses, yellow daisies, sunflowers, buttercups, green stems and purple lilacs. The flowers perfume the theater like the smell of a spring day.
My eyes search wildly for my proud mother and grandmother. All around me I see each pink ballerina cradling her bouquet of flowers like a mother holding her precious child.
A sudden rush of panic fills my eyes. "Esther." I hear my name being called.
"Mommy," I reply, rushing into her arms as if I am a puppy running to receive a treat. My eyes glance over to my grandmother. Her hands are empty except for her handbag, which holds the makeup. My mother smells of citrus lotion, but the familiar smell of flowers is missing. There are no flowers. Was I not good enough? Did I mess up? Why didn't I get flowers? Do Mommy and Grandmother not love me? As these questions flow through my head, it feels like a big apple is beginning to form in my throat. The tears begin to stream down my pink cheeks. Each drop tastes like a salty glass of water. My arms are empty; I have no baby to cradle.
"Esther, sweetie, what's the matter? You were so good on stage, why are you crying?"
"Flowers," I said, as I started to sob uncontrollably.
"Flowers, how come you don't have any flowers for me? Where are my flowers?" My disappointment shuddered throughout my body. I could hear the calm voice of my grandmother as she told me that she didn't know to bring flowers because it was her first time at one of my recitals; she just didn't know. Her words went in one ear and out the other. My mother also was upset and said that this was the first recital in our family and so she did not know about this tradition. She wished that the teacher or a friend had told her beforehand. Why didn't they sell bouquets of flowers in the lobby? My mother scooped me into her arms. My tears got absorbed into her green knitted sweater as if it was a sponge.
As we walked out to the car to go home, my grandmother secretly picked a bouquet of flowers from the blooming rhododendron bushes on the manicured grounds. She told me that I was her perfect ballerina. This made the waterfall on my face run even faster. All that mattered at the moment was that I was the only performer who did not have any flowers.
As I look back on that day of my first dance recital, I realize that the bouquet my grandmother had picked for me was the most meaningful and loving bouquet that I would ever receive. Each flower that she picked was a flower of love. Ever since that day, my mother never attended a recital without a bouquet of flowers for me. I always accept the flowers knowing that they are in my arms because my family loves and cares about me, and wants me to be happy. I love cradling those bouquets. And if they should ever forget to bring flowers, I won't mind. I will appreciate that they enjoy watching me perform at something I love so much. The flowers in time droop and die, but those smiling, proud faces and complimentary words of love and admiration will remain in my heart and mind forever.