I follow the girl with pink-tipped hair up the back stairs and behind me, the audience laughs. I turn and look at them for a moment, at this sea full of my neighbors, colleagues, and faces of my childhood. They cannot see me, hidden in the shadows of the stairwell beside the stage, but I watch their faces as they light up and rest again. They are here to watch you perform, to do exactly as they are doing now because they have no other reason to be here on this stuffy, Saturday night. And while the thought tumbles through my mind, I can’t help but think how easy it would be to watch from their perspective, with innocence replacing the years of knowledge inside my chest. Their only purpose is to enjoy the show. But I am here for a different reason, I didn’t pay at the door, and as I turn back to the crew member guiding me, I feel my breath catch in my throat.
Because there you are. We have made it up the stairs, and as my vision is flooded with the backstage aura, you are the only thing that stands out in this sea of mayhem. I watch as the girl goes up and taps your arm, the way a person does during a math class and they need help, that’s how her fingers poke your shoulder. As if it’s light hearted, as if we aren’t standing behind a curtain in an auditorium filled with hundreds of people in the same high school I once drove to every single day. As if I don’t have the news that I carry deep within my stomach.
I watch as she points in my direction and you turn your head. The smile that was stretched along your cheeks slowly begins to fall when you take in the sight of me. I know it’s obvious I don’t belong as I stand with my hands burrowed deep in the pockets of my coat, still in the sea of rushing bodies that weave around us, alone among the groups of performers applying last-minute make up.
I watch your face for any sign of emotion but it’s just blank. A girl wearing heels too high to walk in says something, your name I guess, and you glance from her to me as life returns to your cheeks. Your once chlorine-frayed hair is tied back in an Elsa-like braid, draping against the purple sequins of your leotard, a similar color to your bedroom walls when I was nine. I can still hum the tune your doorbell played just as I can name the stuffed animals that lined your bed because they are cemented somewhere in my memory.
You know what I have to say before I can even think of how to form the words. You must know because that’s the only reason I’d be here, backstage, on your big night. You knew as soon as you saw me and so I wait still for your reaction, for a yell, a cry, a sign that you know and I won’t have to be the one to say the words out loud. I have only been here a few seconds, I am reminded after I hear the audience chuckle, but as we stand and look at each other, I am lost in time.
Do you remember details like I do? I catch myself thinking back and wondering whether you do the same. I remember sitting on the stairs in your house, the rough carpet against my bare thighs as I waited for you to come down. I heard you crying instead, and when I looked up I saw your mother leaning against the wall and that was the first time I saw how sick she had become. Her eyes were so much smaller than I remembered, her hair so thin, her fingers almost blue in the dim hallway. I didn’t know what to do so I stood up and waited in the living room, and then outside because I couldn’t stand to look at the framed pictures any longer. I waited and kicked rocks in your gravel driveway with my hands in my pockets until I saw my father’s truck pulling up. I left without saying goodbye because all I wanted was to take you with me.
The distance rests between us and I know I have to be the one to walk first, so I take a few steps, slowly and then faster until I’m welcomed into the circle of dancers you are standing in.
“She-,” I start, but for the first time I can’t think of anything to say. I’ve imagined this moment for years, I’ve grown up with it, but my hands shake a little, just as they do when I can’t form the words I want to write. They twitch with anticipation and anger, quivering inside my pockets with an irresistible itch to escape. But I try to ignore the dizziness, the fast hammer of my heartbeat, and the anxiety creeping through my body with every passing second.
Because that’s when it hits you. That’s when you know. I watch as you look from me to a girl next to you to the floor and back at me again. And your head shakes, your eyes water, and even though I hate to (God, do I hate to) I just slowly nod. You shake your head more and I nod and you shake until a small sound escapes from your mouth.
“No. No, I can’t deal with this now,” you say in a voice I’ve never heard before. Yet we both know you will never deal with this.
Suddenly the circle is shifting and you’re moving away from me and I shout Wait but a crew member steps in front of me as I try to follow you and the other performers.
“I’m sorry, we really can’t allow you back here,” the girl in the black tee-shirt and headset says, and I know she has no reason to apologize, because I do not belong here and it is obvious.
“It’s a family emergency,” I say anyway, and the girl looks at you, but you shake your head and turn away. I don’t wait to see her reaction and by the time she turns to me I’m already at the steps, back down to where the ignorant audience rests and I fly past them.
It only takes seconds to reach the front entrance, and I crash through the large glass doors, feeling the wall of cold air float over me. I stop for a moment, underneath the dim lights that rest above the doors, and look around at the full but silent parking lot. I have nowhere to go. As I realize this, my breathing slowly returns to normal and I take my hands off of my knees to stand straight. My arms hang beside me for a moment before I slide them back into my pockets, trying to let the anxiety loose from my shoulders. And all the while I’m counting.
I count the parked cars, I count the snowflakes as they land in my fine hair, one by one. I count the seconds out loud in this utopia, the rhythm rocking me back and forth until I feel the chapped cracking of my lips and the frigid air tight in my lungs. I try to push the memories away, but I watch them dance before me because that’s just the way my mind works. I see us when I was seven, then eight, the images blurring in mind like an old movie I cannot pause.
When I was ten and it was autumn we went to Jenny’s Farm Stand and Cider Mill. The air smelled like little kids and apples with just a hint of donuts, an afterthought in the crisp feel. I wanted to look at pumpkins, but you decided to climb the haystack, where kids were playing tag and hide-and-go-seek. By the time I found you again, you were leaning against the golden door of your minivan, struggling to breathe because you had fallen off the bales and the wind was knocked out of your lungs. The group of moms watching said your brother pushed you off the top, but I was looking at pumpkins and didn’t even realize the magnitude of the moment until I heard someone scream out. And as you tried to convince your mom that you had only lost your balance, I wished I could have seen you fall because imagining it was only worse. Was the haystack truly as tall as I remember it? And more importantly, did he push you? I only wonder this in retrospect, after I have replayed arguments from the car ride home over and over again in my head. I still imagine you falling in slow-motion, your stark blonde hair contrasting the red October sky, eyes flashing open as you hit your head against the dirt and tried to scream.
It’s only then that I can return to the crowded auditorium. I tell the usher I forgot my ticket, but it doesn’t matter. It’s clear I’m just interrupting her view of the show.
In a few seconds my eyes adjust back to the darkness and I make my way to the front of the auditorium along the left wall, stopping when I reach a group of students with cameras. One of the girls is scribbling away in a notepad, another typing on her phone. I melt in with the reporters and try to focus on the boy singing “Golden Moments,” but my mind can only wander while I lean against the cool brick.
I remember your dad told us while we were eating Kraft macaroni, the kind with shells and orange cheese but you called it yellow.
Your dad called it cancer. How do you explain to child a disease that has no cure? I remember your eighth birthday at Gallup Park, when I was sulking because I was eleven and I didn’t want to play House any more. You brought me a slice of Dragon Tales birthday cake and asked if your mom was going to die.
I remember you told me I was the one you wanted when it finally happened. You wanted me to tell you, because it was never a question of if, just a question of when.
And that’s when you come on stage. I haven’t even heard the MC announce your name, but there you stand, back to the world as somewhere, the band softly starts. The spotlight is turned on next, and I watch your shadow begin to move slowly, only the way a dancer can. You always were the athletic one.
And I try to think how I will write about this moment, how I can describe the way your body twists, but for the life of me I can’t find a single word. Not even years later when I sit and stare at the blank pages on my laptop screen can I capture your spirit that night.
And as I watch you I know something no one else does, I know our haunting secret and I know why you’re crying. I know why your eyes are red and your mascara is leaving soft trails down your face. I know they think it’s just passion. But I cry as you cry, and I bleed as you bleed underneath the burning lights, your skin glistening with sweat and tears. I watch you as you watch me.
And we cry together.