WASHINGTON, D.C., 1995
Viv flops down on the sofa with a wince. She pulls her legs up and hugs them to her chest. Her knees are sore, and there’s a dull throbbing in her toes and ankles. The bodice of her sweaty dance costume sticks to her sides, and she shivers.
“I’m hungry,” she moans, pressing her face against her knees.
“Soon, Vivienne,” Mother mutters distractedly from the armchair. Her eyes are glued to the television. She presses the Rewind button on the remote for the VHS player yet again. The image on the screen flickers backward. Then she stabs the Play button. After a moment, she points at the little moving figures on the TV. “Look at that!”
Viv raises her head, peering over her knees. She watches herself doing a pirouette, then a jeté. The tiny Viv on the TV is the tallest of the three girls going through the exercises, and the skinniest. Viv is proud that she also looks more mature than the others, even though they have all just turned eight. Her long, blonde braid catches the ballet studio light, shining silver-gold.
“Arms,” Mother exclaims. Viv flinches, and the pleasure of watching herself turns sour. “You need to work on those arms! They look like string cheese!” She glares at Viv, who shrinks under the anger. “How many times have I told you: Arms soft but controlled. You flop around like an octopus!” She waves her hand in Viv’s direction, irritated. “Sit up straight!” Shaking her head, she turns her attention back to the screen.
Viv complies at once. She scoots to the edge of the sofa and makes her back extra straight, even though her spine protests. She grimaces but says nothing.
Mother grunts as the Vivienne on the screen makes a wobbly landing on the next jump. “You’ll never get away with that at the Opera National,” she mutters. Her eyes are cold as she glances around again. “If we even get you in there.”
Tears sting Viv’s eyes. She did her best this afternoon; she really did. She’s done her best every day these last three weeks, and she’s well ahead of the other girls training to get into one of the best ballet schools in the world. But it’s never good enough for Mother. It almost bubbles from her mouth, how Mother’s words make her feel, and how much every part of her body hurts. But Viv knows that confession would just bring her Mother’s scorn, and maybe a slap.
So instead she says again, “I’m hungry. Please, can’t I have a sandwich?”
Mother sighs. The disappointment radiates from her eyes. But she gets up from the cream leather armchair, her slim, athletic body graceful. “Come on, then.”
They go into the kitchen, where Mother selects two small apples from the bottom drawer in the fridge. As she rinses them under the tap, she asks, “You want to go to Paris, right?” Her voice is less terse now.
“Of course!” Viv exclaims. She clambers onto a stool at the breakfast bar. “Really, I do!”
“Then you need to work harder!” Mother cuts the apples into slices. She puts the narrow wedges in front of Viv one by one. “You’ve inherited my talent.” Viv gets a rare smile. “I’m very pleased about that. And you’re pretty. You can thank the gods that you got your father’s light coloring.” She pauses and touches her own chestnut hair, which she wears in a loose bun at home. “But that’s not good enough, not to get into the Opera National de Paris.” Mother says the exotic name with reverence and perfect pronunciation. She reaches across the counter and strokes Vivienne’s hair, then tilts her chin upward. “You have to be the best!” Her green eyes are beautiful like emeralds, but they are also hard as ice. Viv nods.
“I’ll work harder, I promise,” she says. How she could, Viv isn’t sure, but Mother clearly wants to hear it. Then she ventures, “Can’t I have a PB and jelly sandwich, though?”
“Of course not!” Mother lets go of her face. “Until la première sélection next week, you’re not eating bread!” But she goes over to the cupboard and gets the little bag of cashew nuts she hides in there for emergencies. As she counts out ten nuts next to the apple slices, Vivienne watches her mother’s slender fingers. The big diamond ring she got from Papa on her last birthday sparkles on her right hand.
Viv will never be as graceful as her mother, or loved enough by any man to be given such a gift. Mother thinks Viv can be the best, attend the best ballet school in France, and be celebrated as the daughter of the famous Annushka Petrov, but Viv has her doubts. As she chews her apple slices, making them last as long as possible, Viv vows to herself that she will try harder tomorrow. She’ll dance until her toes bleed and she can do the perfect jeté.