You’ve been dancing since the moment you learned how to walk.
Stumbling towards your father, arms stretched to keep your balance, brows knit together in concentration, and tongue poking out between your lips; it’s caught on film, every second of it, every minute you spend on your feet.
Your mother puts you in a tutu at the very first chance she has. She signs you up for ballet the day after you turn four. It seems to be the only thing you know, the only thing that matters. Your grades are important, of course, and your mother would love for you to have a healthy social life, but ballet will always come first. Dance has to come first.
It’s not that you hate it. You like learning new things. You like seeing the look of pride on your mother’s face when she points you out to the other parents, like hearing it in her voice when she brags about you to cashiers at grocery stores. You like the flexibility, being able to do the splits. You like it. Really.
Except for the days you can barely stay standing. The bruises on your feet, your heels, your ankles, your knees. The muscle fatigue. The dizziness from spinning for too long. The sharp tongue of your instructor when you do something wrong. The disappointed expression from your mother when you fall during rehearsal.
But you could never stop. You could never tell her you don’t want to dance anymore. The only time you stand tall is when on the very tips of your toes. Never against your mother, never to tell her no.
Four becomes six and then ten. The girls in your class that you befriend come and go as they find other interests, less exhausting talents to pursue, leaving behind something they simply considered a hobby.
At thirteen, your mother says you’re moving from Arizona to New York.
Fourteen suddenly feels like four. You feel as if you are learning new things all over again, starting fresh, except New York doesn’t feel fresh. It’s dirty and muggy, the air isn’t as clear as it was in the desert, and the sky is obscured by skyscrapers every way you look. Winters are harsh and the people just as cold.
Baum Academy focuses heavily on the arts. It’s a given, you figure, what with its name. Your mother has you enrolled in dance before you can object and something inside of you… snaps.
But you could never stop. Ballet is in your blood now, it is the only constant you have in life. Now, though… you think now you could stand tall against everyone else. You can tell everyone else no.
So it is out with the old Estella and in with the new Stella. You shed your neutral, pastel colored clothes and opt for brighter shades. You let loose your high ponytails or tight buns and revel in the feeling of your long platinum hair on your skin. You speak your mind, raising your voice, finding solace in being able to finally stand up for yourself.
As best you can, you keep your dancing a secret. You sneak through the halls, ever light on your feet. It would be easy for anybody to discover; it’s not like it’s an easy thing to keep hidden. In fact, you’re sure that it’s stupid to even try. Ballet is all that you know. It is hard work and the results are always beautiful. You should be proud in your skills.
You try to convince yourself that you are.
And then you meet Edgar.
He hates you on sight. You think you hate him on sight, too. Judging a book by its cover, he is your opposite: grayscale, quiet, studious. Your mother raised you to be kind, though, and that is as much a part of you as ballet is. Still, you are Stella now and Stella stands up for herself. Estella might have let this boy insult her work ethic but Stella would never allow someone to call her lazy. He makes amends and you apologize and start on the project.
You get a passing grade, somehow. You are proud of your skills… really. Those skills are just very limited and academics doesn’t make the list. You expect to fail plainly because you are involved. You think it’s just Edgar balancing you out. You try not to think about that too much, given how much the two of you don’t get along, anyway.
Freshman year ends. You visit home for the summer. The hundred degree weather feels good and the sun melts away the sharp edges New York had carved into you. You catch up with your old dance friends and find most of them have moved on to bigger and better things; they want to be marine biologists, actresses, travelers of the world.
What do you want to do, Estella?
I really see a future in ballet, you tell them. Your dress is pale, your hair braided, your voice soft. You can imagine the beaming smile on your mother’s face if she were to hear you. You wonder which version of you is the real one.
Sophomore year begins. It brings new friends. It is assembly speeches with Jackson Horowitz. It is new roommate Charity Clarke who is as kind as her name. It is Chemistry tutoring with Xander Sykes. It is being taught how to ditch class by one of the infamous Davenport twins. It helps bridge the gap between you and Edgar Brooke.
It tugs you farther away from your mother.
Despite the appearance of a thick skin, of insults bouncing off your armor, every word burrows itself between your bones. Every criticism is a rope around your neck, being pulled tighter and tighter until you cannot breathe. It comes from your teachers. You are sure they don’t mean to hurt you; they are doing their jobs, trying to help you pass your classes, offering what assistance they can. It comes from your instructor: reminders to keep your toes pointed, your arms straight, your chin held high.
It comes from your mother.
Estella, I don’t understand. What is this about disruptive behavior in class?
She could never understand. She couldn’t even begin to understand. I’m sorry, Mother, you tell her, I’ll do better. She sighs and shakes her head and you know what she is going to say before she does.
I’m disappointed in you.
Panic does not allow you to hear anymore. You just nod and smile and apologize again. Panic steals the air from your lungs, wrapping tight around your windpipe. Panic reaches for you, sharp claws and jagged teeth. Panic does not allow you sleep until you pass out from lack of it.
You think your life might be over the day you decide to practice in the auditorium after school.
Music pours quietly from the speakers of an old radio, classical notes that you are agonizingly familiar with. Winter break is near. You’re avoiding leaving the academics building because that means going outside in the cold to get to the dorms. You need to work on your sautés. It is elementary and yet you’ve been struggling.
Focused as you are, you do not hear the creak of the door opening, nor the flood of light coming in from the outside. It is not until you’ve pirouetted across the stage and come to a stand still, breathing heavily, that you notice.
Why you are short of breath is a mystery though it might just be that there are too many possible reasons. You think it might be the panic attacks again because framed in the doorway is a figure and they are watching you. You can’t see them, silhouetted as they are, but you are practically on display. And yet, you are somehow the first to speak, despite not having been the one to interrupt. Ridiculously enough, you say: I’m sorry.
You see a physical jolt, an actual twitch to their shoulders. And then they turn around and leave.
One shuddering inhale is all it takes before you collapse on stage and cry.
Every classmate you make eye contact could be the one that saw you. This stupid reputation you’ve built as Stella, the “bright but only in a figurative sense” girl, could be ruined in a moment. Somehow, despite a year and a half at this school, it isn’t common knowledge your place on the dance team. Felice is pretentious but as long as you don’t try to best her, she’s harmless. You trust Gracie, a kindred spirit if you’ve ever met one, and Eva is far too focused on herself to care about anything you do. That is only to name a few and all of them are interesting but they seem to understand that what happens in the auditorium on Thursday evenings stays in the auditorium on Thursday evenings.
Were it not for your finesse, your steady control over your limbs, you’d fall out of your chair. The look you give Edgar must make him realize how strange it really was for him to be greeting you first because he fidgets in his seat.
Good morning, Eddie, you tease, putting on your mask and tucking Estella away.
It works because he scowls at you for the nickname and turns his attention to the whiteboard.
You catch him glancing at you in your peripheral during each class you share. Since the successful History project during your first year at Baum, you’ve grown closer to him. Whether either of you cares to admit it, you think it’s okay to call him a friend. You find yourself hoping most days that he feels the same. You sit next to each other now which makes it easy for you to notice when something is off. During study hall, you ignore your Sciences worksheet, and turn to face him.
Is everything okay?
He doesn’t respond until he’s finished writing out the answer to a question that looks like Math. Yeah, why?
He looks at you with those sea glass eyes and you have to bat away the butterflies in your stomach. You’ve been acting weird today, you tell him, don’t think I haven’t noticed.
And then something you weren’t expecting happens. Edgar’s composure falters. It is minuscule: a crease in his brows, a frown twitches on his lips. It lasts a fraction of a second before he rolls his eyes. Figures you’d notice something like that instead of pay attention in class.
It hurts more than it should and so you drop it.
Finals are in a month which means summer break is so near, you can taste it. You decide everybody could use a good prank and it is presented to you in the form of Edgar coming to school so tired that he falls asleep in class. The mustache you draw on his face in permanent marker is a work of art. The laughter in the halls, the high five from an upperclassman, Edgar’s Boston accent when angry — every moment is worth it.
Right up until the truth comes out in the school chatroom. Right up until you find out he blames you for his less than spectacular grade in Chemistry. Right up until you realize you’ve ruined everything. Right up until you start to panic, thinking you’ve pushed away one of the few people you really, truly care about.
You aren’t sure what would help in this moment and so you turn to the one constant in your life: ballet.
You take your slippers and head for the auditorium. You pick a Spotify playlist on your phone at random and you dance. Blindly. Heartbroken. It hurts. It’s excruciating. What you’ve been doing since you were four suddenly seems impossible. A scream tries to slip from between clenched teeth. You allow yourself to sit, wiping the tears from your cheeks, holding your knees tight to your chest, and forcing deep breaths of air down your throat.
Somehow, you are not surprised. It was you. It had to be him. Of course it did.
Why didn’t you say anything?
You apologized that day.
You apologize for a lot of things.
What is he getting at? You find yourself growing frustrated. You are very still as he sits across from you.
My grades are my own fault. I shouldn’t have—
It’s fine, you snap, unsure whether it was intentional or not, I can handle you hating me for it. I’m not as fragile as these might make me seem. You gesture to your ballet slippers, bitter over what he must think of you now. Ballerinas are such weak girls.
He’d been looking at his clasped hands initially but his head whips up now. He stares at you with wide eyes, slightly parted lips, and you curse the uneven beat of your heart.
I don’t hate you. I could never hate you.
You and I both know that isn’t true.
You and I have changed since then.
People don’t really ever change.
I never took you for a pessimist.
For some reason, this really irks you. You don’t know anything about me.
I know you like soy milk even though you aren’t lactose intolerant. I know you prefer hot over cold. I know you’re smarter than you let on. I know your favorite hair extension is the purple one because you wear it the most often.
You curse the uneven beat of your heart. You stand up, grateful for the years of training that keeps your legs steady when you want nothing more than to fall back down. Nice talk, you say as you leave, not looking back.
I’ve never thought you fragile and I certainly don’t now.
You hate not having the last word but if you stay a moment longer, you will break.
Sophomore year ends and you spend another summer vacation back home in Arizona. This time, the sun does nothing for your edges. Edgar’s last comment weighs heavy on your mind and you think maybe it’ll help if you remove some of the weight from your head. Your mother screams when you come home with chopped, uneven hair.
Junior year, you reunite with Pennie. She does not know it, though. You wonder if you really are that different. Edgar didn’t remember you either, though. You don’t think a face full of makeup, high ponytails, and sweetheart neckline dresses would make such a big deal. You think about telling her but if you tell her, then Edgar will know as well, and you don’t want him to. He might know now that you dance but that doesn’t mean he has to remember who you used to be. That’ll just make Stella so much more disappointing. You aren’t sure why you care so much what he thinks.
Junior year, you meet Nahnie. Immediately, she sees over your walls. It’s kind of her job as Yearbook staff to know everything about everybody and so, of course, she knows that you do more than just dance. She digs up your history of trophies and medals, your appearances in tiny newspaper articles, but she does not care. She promises to not put it in the yearbook if you don’t want. She does give you a piece of advice: you do you, babe. Fuck everybody else.
You find Edgar in the library on the very same Wednesday Nahnie suggested tutoring for Math. You make a mental note to kick her ass before making your presence known by noisily dropping yourself into the chair across from him. It’s the first time you two have really been alone since the auditorium. Classes have been… awkward, to say the least, and you know it is your fault, but you try not to think about it. Now’s the chance to repair that burnt bridge.
Looks like I’ve found you in your natural habitat.
He doesn’t look up until he’s finished the problem and you’re reminded of study hall. He’d been acting strange that day because he’d seen you dancing. Not thinking about it, not thinking about it, not thinking—
Stella Hines? In a library? How uncharacteristic of you. I’m concerned, to be honest.
And just like that, it is easy. He makes Math easy, makes it understandable, but you keep that to yourself. Couldn’t have that genius ego of his getting any bigger, right? You didn’t realize how much you’d missed him, missed this. This back and forth, teasing one another. It makes sense. You wish you understood it like you do pliés.
You, inevitably, end up in the hospital. You’d spent the last few minutes in dance looking at Vine, admiring all of the seven second clips of performers, of how much they could do in so little time. You wanted to be that good. You wanted to impress your mother and your instructor, you wanted to show them that you weren’t slacking, that you were still eager to learn, eager to be better. You try too hard. After one too many failed attempts, desperate to do something right, you’d aimed too high, and next thing you know, pain is shooting up your leg.
Thankfully, you were in the auditorium where your cries echo and help comes in no time.
Your ankle is broken. After your parents leave at the end of visiting hours and your nurse adjusts your pain medicine, you send a text out to your friends. It’s a room number and an apology. You don’t realize how worrisome that could really be until you’re slipping under and into a drug induced sleep.
The next time you wake up, the first thing you see is flowers. The person carrying those flowers is Edgar. There’s also a crown of them on your head, you realize, upon reaching up to investigate the weight. You leave it there and give Edgar a tiny smile. The flowers aren’t from him and you try not to let your tiny smile fall away. Thank you for delivering them, you say, a bit confused.
He asks how you’re feeling and you answer honestly and he’s speaking suddenly far more than what you are used to. The feeling it gives you is similar to what criticism has always done to you except worse because it is Edgar and for some reason, you really don’t want to disappoint him. I’m sorry, you mumble, I didn’t want to bother you.
Things get fuzzy from there on out. You think there might be some flirting along the way. You think you meet Pennie’s older sister. You think there are some Snapchats and a broken heart monitor. You think you hear Edgar say short hair looks good on you before you let the medicine take you for another nap.
Edgar makes good on his promise and carries you around when he can. Mostly, he just carries your books so you can navigate easily with your crutches. He signs your cast first. He makes sure you take your painkillers when you’re supposed to. You miss dancing. He stops you from accidentally hurting yourself when you try too early to get back into it. At the end of an online chat with your friends, he comes over and tucks you in. You think you’d made a bet where the winner got an IOU kiss and when he kissed you on the forehead that night, you’d told him we haven’t done the challenge yet, I don’t deserve kisses. You wish you could be sure whether or not he’d said you always deserve kisses. For what would not be the last time, you cursed your pain meds for playing tricks on your memory.
So many things happen Junior year that you really wonder if the life you are living is still yours. You’re watching Frozen with Edgar, Pennie, and Ari, singing along to the music and having fun. Despite the likeness between Pennie and Anna, you can’t help but compare yourself and Edgar to the princess and Kristoff. Maybe everything had been leading up to this moment, lyrics being sung on recollection while you take a trip down memory lane.
It’s spring when it all comes crashing down around you. You’d skipped last period to sort through your muddled thoughts. It was embarrassing how long it’d taken you to realize when the signs were there all along. The butterflies in your stomach, the uneven beats of your heart, caring what he thought, not wanting to worry him— Everything eventually made its way back to Edgar. Maybe that is why your feet carry you to his room, where you don’t knock as per usual, and hesitate in his doorway when you catch him singing.
He’s unfairly talented. He’s as familiar with the guitar as you are with an entrechat. You watch him move around the room as he sings, as he plays the strings so effortlessly, acting the least like Edgar you’ve ever seen him be. He lays down and you step out of the frame, heart beating fast in your ribcage, as he starts anew.You lean against the wall, listening with closed eyes, a smile dancing at the corners of your mouth. You allow yourself a moment to hope it is you he's singing about before pushing off the wall and turning to head back to your dorm.
You come to a dead stop, your heart finding a home now in your throat. You should leave. If it were you, you’d want them to leave. And he had, if you think about it. The day he’d seen you in the auditorium. Despite what you should have done, what you would have wanted done, you pivot, and peek into his room.
Ridiculously enough, you say: I’m sorry.
He seems frozen and so you step further in, closing the door behind you. That was beautiful, you compliment him, as if you hadn’t discovered what was probably his one big secret. He comes to his senses and thanks you before offering to play the rest of it for you. With an invitation to sit, you do, perhaps too close, perhaps not close enough. He takes a moment, adjusts his posture, takes a deep breath. You admire the focus he puts into it.
You make eye contact on the first love and your face grows warm. You like him. It’s as simple as that. You’ve liked him for awhile now. Why have you been denying it for so long? You find yourself unable to stop staring until he finishes. The last note lingers and it isn’t until his sea glass eyes meet yours that you begin to panic. I’m sorry, you say again, I should have knocked. And while panic normally shuts you up, this time, it lets you speak freely.
As someone who knows what it’s like to have a secret, I should’ve known better than to interrupt. I guess I was just in a hurry to get over here. Thank you, though! you hurry to add, for sharing that with me.
It’s not really that big a deal, he tells you. What are you sorry about? He asks. You can come in any time, I don’t mind, he reassures. And you think that’ll be it, that he won’t have noticed— Why were you in such a hurry?
This is it, isn’t it? Every moment has led to this: dancing since you could walk, the aftereffects of a prank, the heart to heart after an online chat, the realization like a bolt of lightning during movie night with friends. You try to hesitate so you can figure out how you want to say it. Instead, the panic takes over: I like you.
But because nothing in life is that easy, you continue. I guess I just realized and it was, I don’t know, super important to tell you? Or something? It’s no big deal. It is more than a big deal. Words fail you.
I like you, too, no big deal. I’m glad we got past whatever differences we had freshman year.
Something inside of you snaps. Auto pilot clicks on and you aren’t sure even what you’re saying before the doorknob is turning in your hands and you are back out in the hallway, tears blurring your vision, heart ripping itself in half. Of course he’s followed you and your name on his lips grounds you and you turn back to look at him. He really likes you and that should be it, that should be all it takes to fix this, but somehow, it isn’t. Somehow, it doesn’t work. The embrace doesn’t, either. It helps but it does not stitch the pieces of your heart back together. You cry. You let yourself stay there, in his arms, until you’re out of tears.
And then you pull away. Take a couple of shaky breaths. I’m sorry, you finally say, feeling as if no amount of apologies will ever make up for… you. And that is when the problem becomes clear. It’s not you, you begin to tell him, before deciding he deserves so much more than a terrible cliché, so much more than terrible… you. So, you do the next best thing. Forget it, you say it harshly, as if that’ll convince him. You cross your arms, you put up your walls.
Forget what? He asks instead and you want to beg him to let it go, to let you go. I don’t even know what you’re upset about! He takes a deep breath, tries again. This is all new to me. It is to you, too. I just don’t know how to handle having feelings for someone and I’m sorry.
Panic did funny things to you. Sometimes, it shut you up. Sometimes, it wouldn’t let you breathe. Sometimes, it did this. You say a lot of things you don’t mean (you aren’t really done, you could never be done) but the world comes grinding to a halt at his confession. You can’t possibly, is all you manage, because how could anybody like you when you didn’t even like yourself most days? Isn’t that what your mother had always told you?
Nobody will love you until you learn to love yourself, Estella.
This time, you leave quickly enough to make it to your room. You lock the door behind you and slide down against it. You let yourself cry, not caring who hears. A few minutes pass, each of which you helplessly hope Edgar will come and knock on your door at. You get something better.
He’s halfway through the song by the time you get to your feet. Forehead pressed to the door, you allow yourself the rest of the serenade to breathe, to dry your eyes. Your name on his lips grounds you and you imagine opening the door is a metaphor to opening your heart. Honesty was going to be key here. You take his hand and pull him in, not letting go even as you sit down in the middle of the room, avoiding his eyes.
I’m sorry, you begin, which you think might be on its way to becoming a bad habit. You try to take the blame before telling Edgar just how much you like him (a lot) and then you let him in on your self esteem issues, of finding it hard to believe that he could ever like you, and how it was wrong of you to assume, and of course, because how else would you do it, you end with another apology. Not once did you let go of his hand.
You still don’t have anything to apologize for was a much better start than you’d had. His middle and end were better, too, but you find yourself unsurprised. He had always been the smarter one between you two so of course he’d know how to write this essay. I like you… Like you a lot, too.
You aren’t sure if the squealing is outside the door or if the butterflies in your stomach have learned new tricks.
Your insecurities are shouting at you because it’s impossible to be the most wonderful girl on the planet when there are girls like Aurora and Grace out there. Girls who are sweet and kind, who will make good wives, who knew what they were doing in life. (You try not to think too hard about the type of boys Aurora and Grace apparently attracted).
You stand and begin to pace and you know the panic is grasping at straws when it makes you ask: What about Finnley? You two hit if off, didn’t you? Finn was your roommate for all of half a semester before she had to leave due to family problems. Edgar brushes that off as easily as a horse would a fly.
He catches you by the shoulders, stopping you in your tracks, and finally locking gazes with you. Those damn sea glass eyes. For a moment longer, you keep that eye contact, before saying it once more: I’m sorry. Your voice cracks and you lean forward, resting your forehead against his shoulder. He holds you and it was then that it truly strikes you like lightning: Edgar likes you. He’d serenaded you in front of the entire dorm building, considered you his best friend, likes you. He likes you. Your arms wrap themselves around him and you aren’t sure for how long you stay like that before you have to pull away.
Not keen on losing this new, unfamiliar warmth, though, you take his hand in yours, and sit down on the bed. I don’t know what happens next but can we maybe… not make a big deal out of this? I’m… really happy about it. Don’t let the red eyes and tear streaks fool you, a truly excellent attempt at a joke, I just don’t know that I can handle much more for another, like… month. You doubt Nahnie or Aurora will let this go but maybe you can find comfort knowing that Edgar would be willing to let things go back to normal.
You chat a bit more after that, with some definite flirting thrown in for good measure, before you hug one last time, and finally crawl underneath every blanket you own, and put on some cheesy romantic Spotify playlist.
So many things happen Junior year that you really wonder if the life you are living is still yours.
Pennie finds out you and Edgar had admitted to your feelings; he tries to make things less awkward by roundabout insulting you, you tackle him in the hallway, you kiss him (some might say he kissed you, they are wrong). Panic reintroduces an old friend by the name of depression. And it hits you. Hard. You wish you hadn’t stopped taking your meds but you thought it was gone, what with the way things had been going so smoothly lately. In the span of less than an hour, you hit your highest high and your lowest low.
You think Edgar stopped you from making a very big mistake that day. Three simple words, a request to stay, extra soft blankets. Maybe one day we could do this without going through emotional trauma first gets a proper laugh out of you. You fall asleep on his shoulder, history documentary entirely forgotten. It’s a quiet nap, not a single dream or nightmare to disturb you.
You used to play Chess with your father back home in Arizona. He thought you might like a challenge since ballet was coming easier and easier to you each day. And you did. You really appreciated it. You’d always liked learning new things. So when Edgar challenges you to a Chess match, you know you stand a chance against him. That goes against this new image you’ve created, though. While you don’t think Edgar would judge you much if you actually showed you knew something intellectual, nearly the whole school is watching. Nahnie has her camera out for yearbook. Aurora and Jackson are there and so is Pennie and so you do the next best thing.
You flip the table.
It’s incredibly immature but it is perfectly Stella. Besides, losing this match apparently means attending a wedding as Edgar’s plus one. You didn’t have any ideas if you were to win, anyway. You like weddings but this means dressing up and you don’t like dressing up. It makes you uncomfortable. There’s no one Edgar would rather spend the four hour drive with, though, and you try to focus on that instead.
What you assume is the venue is actually his home. Big secret number two: Edgar comes from money. You don’t care but this explains suddenly why he’d insisted on paying for Pennie’s pizza and milkshake. The house is lovely, beautifully decorated for the event. His mother doesn’t seem nearly as smothering as your own but you’ve only had a two minute conversation and he’s had sixteen years. He takes your hand to lead the way to his room and you stare at your entwined fingers, far too distracted to take in the decor on the walls.
You grab some food from the kitchen, he continues to give you a tour, and tells the story of how his parents met. Aww, you say, that’s cute. And then you are talking about yourselves, sitting in an unfamiliar room in an unfamiliar city. It’s okay, though, because Edgar is sat across from you, telling you about his cousin and the tickle fights they used to have. You like hearing about his childhood. You’re distracted by those sea glass eyes when he reaches over and pokes you in the side and the next thing you know, you’re on your back on the floor.
Your own eyes blown wide, breath escaping you, cheeks burning hot. He doesn’t seem to notice the position you’re in and you finally admit defeat, if only just to earn a moment to relax. In a few years, you’ll think back on this day and realize that this moment is one of the first that helped you to fall in love. You share the bed and sleep soundly.
You wake up to the keys of a piano and for a minute, you just watch Edgar with half-lidded eyes.
The dress Aurora and Nahnie helped you pick has a zipper in the back and you curse them with bad luck for their weekend. Edgar’s face matches the color of the dress but you are still self-conscious, makeup done naturally, hair curled and tucked into a headband. He takes your hand again and leads the way to the garden. The decorations are pretty, the colors look nice together, and the vows make you cry.