Break it down, get up on tiptoe, keep smiling. Breathe, stretch, extend and then go further. Feel the rhythm, melody, moving through you. She must be weightless. She must be delicate. Then she must be strong. Step, plie, fly. There is no room for error. It’s amazing how much dancing feels like a fight. He’s fighting tonight; she can’t remember which ring though. She matches the curve of her spine with her breathing. If she stretches any further, she’ll break. She does it anyway. She doesn’t break. Turn, turn, turn, and hold. She breathes out. The melody sighs its conclusion. She lets it go without her. Her toe is definitely broken. She holds the smile until the curtain falls.
Her shoes are bloody when the ribbons are unlaced. It’s alright, she can soak her feet in ice for this song. She can rest for a moment. Her teacher scoffs at the boxing glove tattooed on her ankle. She always does. The others help her tape up the toe, and she changes costume, then smiles. The curtain rises, she goes out. She is breathtaking, glamorous. The little girls in the front don’t see her bruises. The bored husbands don’t know her stance would cripple every one of them in seconds. The critics see everything. With pursed lips, they scribble in note pads and formulate their headlines and opening sentences. She doesn’t hold her breath for their applause, she doesn’t need it. She is glory incarnate, as she rises en pointe.
Music swells and falls, and she can almost see him in the crowd. There’s no change in her movements as she thinks of the last time he watched her dance. Her control is ironclad, nothing gets through. Bend, twist, smile, flourish. Fly. The arms that hold her aren’t his, but they do their job. They lift her up and she surveys her kingdom. She knows one word the critics will use tomorrow. They will call her radiant. In the blinding lights and amidst the sparkling costumes, she knows she is. Her blood and tears went into every practice, until she could do nothing wrong. Every bandage, and early class. Every longing for five more minutes in bed. Every 4 a.m. run. She is radiant, because she made herself so. The music stops, the applause doesn’t.
An hour away, he wraps his knuckles in the changing room. His trainer talks through their strategy and the competition. He doesn’t listen. He’s heard it all before. He knows this guy in and out; knows where he’s weakest and where to avoid. He lets the trainer talk anyway, placing a kiss on the ballet slipper tattooed on his wrist before the wrap covers it. It’s the closest he can get to being with her tonight. It’s a small tattoo hidden in the maze of geometric shapes and watercolor splotches that is his right arm. It’s his favorite though. Headphones go in, and heavy bass pours out. He can’t hear the trainer, can’t hear the crowd. He can’t smell the beer and the street food that wafts up from the seats. All he hears is rhythm, all he smells is sweat, all he feels is anticipation. His heartbeat rises, he’s excited. He’s excited for more than the prize money, more than that feeling of his opponent hitting the mat. He’s excited for the fight.
The announcers say something about Super Lightweights and his name. His trainer hustles him into the ring and he hears the screams. They’re deafening, but it’s nothing new. He screams back, posturing for the crowd, abdominal muscles tightening. One foot, then the other. Shake out the jitters. This was the result of hours in the gym, months of work. Bruised knuckles, broken fingers, strained muscles. Late nights. So many late nights. His opponent comes forward, the signal is called and it’s chaos. He ignores the screams of fans, his and others. His focus narrows down to fists and feet. Right, left, feint, dodge, block. He knows the moves front and back. The world deadens to silence around him. A punch connects, and connects again, with his torso, but he ignores it. Pain blooms over his right eye. His jaw. Ignore it. Knuckle meets cheekbone, not his. Kick, kick, punch. Strain a little farther. A little faster. This kid always leaves his left open. Block. Attack. Cool head, fast hands. That’s what she always says, in the early morning when he slides her breakfast.
It takes one more punch, and the other guy’s down. His breathing is heavy, loud against the sudden silence. He doesn’t celebrate, doesn’t leave ready stance. He doesn’t let go until the ref calls it. He’s not known for gloating. The crowd doesn’t expect him to do much. There’s no signature move they’re waiting for. Instead, they chant his name. He soaks it in. He’s their hero so long as he’s in the ring. For those brief minutes, his presence lingers over them like a god’s. He feels it. The mat, the sweat, the cheers, the trainer rubbing his close shaved head. He lifts his hand, the right one with the slipper tattoo, to the ceiling filled with catwalks and stage lights.
It’s dark when they both find their way home. The final reviews have been given, and the gym bag is filled with his sweaty gear. He falls up the stairs after she does, and finds her with her feet in a bowl of ice water. She’s tired, her bun falling out of place. She still looks perfect to him. He doesn’t speak, victory is filling his veins, and his jaw hurts too much. It feels right to be quiet. She’s so tired. He’s almost there. He hands her a bag of frozen vegetables and pulls one of her feet from the bowl. She holds the bag in place over his eye as he gets to work with the kit already laid out.
He could never lie and tell her that her feet are beautiful. They’re ugly. As ugly as his hands with the scarred knuckles and busted nails. He’s seen her dance. He knows she tears herself apart to shine on the stage. He loves every broken inch of skin on her feet, every bruised toe. He runs his fingers over the split skin and knobs. Her strength.
She doesn’t balk at the bruise forming on his eye. She’s used to it. He’s already showered and been bandaged. She holds the makeshift ice pack in place, ’cause it’s something for her hands to do. She noticed he came in holding his side. He’ll hurt for a while. He wears his pain much more openly than she does. Today was their last performance, so she has tomorrow off. They can rest together. She hisses when his blunt fingers dig into the meat of her leg, working out a knot she’d been ignoring. He knows her body as well as she does. His hands always find the pain she carries. Calluses from fighting a punching bag grate against her skin.
“You won.” It’s not a question. There’s a drooping sense of victory in the air as the clock ticks down. He can’t hide it from her any more than he can hide the bruises. When he smiles, it’s through a split lip.
“You were beautiful.” He didn’t have to see it happen. She never allowed herself to be anything less. They couldn’t always be there, but they knew. She puts the bag down to run a finger over the pointe shoe on his arm. His thumb finds the small glove she’d tattooed on her ankle. ‘You thought of me,’ is unspoken. They move together, a slow artistry of muscled limbs that undress and wrap around each other, falling onto their bed. It’s all quiet as the lights go out and the only thing left is their breathing. Inhale, exhale. Sleep drags them down together. Ugly hands wrapped around pale shoulders, ugly feet tucked beneath lean thighs.