Gabriella DeFrancesco dug a fingernail into her eyebrow, resting for a moment in a state of utter fatigue. It was nearly midnight, and the bed in her room taunted her.
She sighed, “Why me?”
Gabby was on the verge of committing to an entire summer cooped up in the cloistered science lab of one of the country’s most prestigious universities. The application form lay on her rolltop desk. All she could think was, “How did I get myself into this?”
Closing her eyes, Gabby recalled a conversation earlier in the day with her Advanced Placement Biology teacher, Mr. Bennett.
“Miss DeFrancesco,” Mr. Bennett said, presenting her with an application and a brochure, “you’re the first student that, in all my years of teaching, I can send to this program with complete confidence that you’ll benefit from it.”
Gabby smiled an embarrassed smile and thanked Mr. Bennett in as few words as possible. She slung her brick-loaded backpack onto her shoulder and left, completely ignoring Mr. Bennett’s frenzied shouts of “Two shoulders, Gabby, put the pack over two shoulders. You’ll destroy your back!”
When Gabby returned home and told her parents how she planned to spend the summer, her mother grabbed her face and kissed both cheeks over and over until it became annoying. Her father, for his part, was completely befuddled. But he ended up yelling “Magnifico!” and several other Italian phrases all meaning “wonderful” and ending in “-ico!” Gabby’s summer dreams of vegetating on the porch vanished into thin air, their particles becoming so condensed that they imploded.
* * *
Downstairs, the grandfather clock in the living room tolled twelve times. Gabby pinched the bridge of her nose and tried to focus on the application. The next question was, “What are you passionate about?” The irony of the query bugged her. The fact was that she could never participate in normal teenage life because of her lack of passion for anything. This was disturbing. The nagging feeling that she was wasting her childhood kept her up at night.
Gabby wrote a neat, cursive “B” on the page, then vigorously erased it. She had dismissed the thought of writing “Biology” before she put her pencil to paper. Although it was the answer that the sponsor, Cell Division, Inc., wanted to hear, it somehow didn’t satisfy her.
The ghost of the “B” shimmered on the page. She looked up from the application. Her eye caught the edge of an old photograph tacked to the bulletin board which hung above her desk. Hidden by her jam-packed schedule and reminder notes, the photo had become part of the board, just another thing in which to stick thumbtacks. Gabby disengaged the picture from the hole-riddled cork. It fell a little, before being firmly secured by Gabby’s pointer finger. She brought it close to her face. In the photo, a small girl, smiling an unblemished eight-year-old smile, was ready for her big dancing debut. Gabby grinned at the little girl, knowing that her every dimple was identical to those of the child. Gabby remembered that day so well. It seemed to have been the beginning of her life. This long-ago recital was the first thing she had done that really mattered.
Oh! How Gabby had loved dancing! She would twirl and leap and sparkle and smile, until her toes begged for mercy, but her mind begged for more. What a phenomenal ride! And she would dance until she was sure she was lame.
Gabby hadn’t danced since she was thirteen, when the three-hour practices, dress rehearsals, and the commute to and from The Rock School began to affect her grades. Just remembering the day that she had quit made Gabby tingle.
“You failed a science test?” her mother asked, hardly expecting an answer. “You could’ve failed with a 64, but you had to get a 58! You never even mentioned a test!”
“Esther, Esther, please calm down,” Gabby’s father said. But when his wife glared at him, he turned his full attention to the pages of the test.
“It slipped my mind, what with dancing and all.” Gabby tried to keep her voice reasonable, not wishing to provoke her mother any further.
“If you can’t handle both school and dance, then you’ll just have to cut back on one of them. And it won’t be school!” Her mother bit her lower lip in an effort to control her anger. “That little place in Berwyn has a nice ballet program . . .”
“Forget it! That’s a lame program. It’s for little kids. I’m serious about dancing!” Gabby shouted without thinking. “I can’t cut back on dance at my age. It’s now or never!” Gabby knew she should have stopped there, but she didn’t. “I’d rather quit than go halfway!”
“Fine! You know what, that’s fine!” her mother said, as she turned and swept out of the room in an angry daze.
Gabby fled out the front door, slamming it so hard that a porcelain Madonna fell from the mantel and shattered.
Gabby’s father, who was an engineer and could have passed the failed test in his sleep, yelled after Gabby, “If you’d answered all of the questions E = mc² , you would have gotten half of them right.” He also yelled that he could say E = mc² in Italian, and, just to prove it to the wall, he did.
So Gabby quit dancing, and suddenly formerly disapproving teachers became models of praising, encouraging educators. A year later, when she announced to her parents that she had been accepted into a highly selective advanced biology course and had decided to start down the road to becoming a doctor, her mother began crying, completely overjoyed. Her father, thinking that his wife was upset, tried to comfort her. The whole ordeal was rather funny.
* * *
The grandfather clock chimed the quarter-hour and snapped Gabby out of her daydream. She stood, stretching, and walked over to her dance trunk. It sat at the foot of her bed, where it had become no more than a piece of furniture to her parents. As she lifted the lid, the books and papers on top slid to the floor. Inside the trunk were old copies of Dance magazine which she had been secretly accumulating from the drugstore racks over the past three years. What a longing filled her every time she read and reread those pages! Underneath the magazines lay years of costumes, each bedecked with glitter and sequins. Setting them aside, she came at last to her old toe shoes. The slippers’ satin surface was a grace to the writer’s callus on Gabby’s middle finger. The wooden tips, covered with leather, clunked softly against the side of the trunk.
Gabby sat down on her bed and laced the long ribbons up her lower calf. The shoes still fit perfectly. Flat-footed at first, Gabby stood and took a few ginger steps. She pirouetted, stumbled, and pirouetted again. Her feet remembered their old grace, their old love. Next to this grace, this love, the goal of becoming a doctor seemed as small as a microbe compared to the ballerina it inhabits.
Gabby knew that her lost years could never be replaced. Even if she could replace them, the path they led down was a tricky, chancy one. She didn’t care. She lifted herself up on pointe and tiptoed over to her desk. Bending over the application, she read once again the question, “What are you passionate about?” It seemed so clear now. In large capital letters, she wrote “DANCE!”
Then she tore up the application and threw it away.