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from The Life Before Her Eyes (Harcourt, 2002)

They were wearing black leotards, flesh-colored tights, hot-pink tutus that circled their hips and waists with stiffness. The auditorium was in one of the oldest buildings in Briar Hill. Heavy velvet curtains. Radiators knocking, leaking boiling water onto the dressing room's cracked ceramic tles.

It was spring. The heat was unneccessary, especially with all those girls perspiring in their leotards, and it steamed up the dressing room mirrors.

They'd gathered in a circle and passed the joint around, the smell of cotton balls and the sickly sweetness of those burning leaves.

It hadn't been Diana's joint and it hadn't been her idea, but there she was in the cirlce when Miss Zena, who must have been standing in the doorway for a while by the time she was noticed, said, crying a little, "It ees time for you to dance, you leetle beetches, you beetches who half broken my heart."

There was no time to talk then. Whoever had the joint tossed it somewhere, and Miss Zena hurried them out to the back of the stage, which was dark and hung with ropes and discarded ballet shoes, sequins and tinsel scattered on folding chairs, and the heavy dust-smell of velvet.

The accompanist started to bang out their cue, then stopped, and the girls drifted into the stage lights. There were chalk circles drawn on the floor, and each girl moved into her own circle, the swish-swish of tutus in the silence.

All Diana remembered was the sensation of floating, a starburst in her eyes, and then it seemed as though there were little bits of glitter attaching themselves to her eyelids and arms. She had never smiled before with such unselfconscious joy. When she looked out at the audience of parents and siblings, she saw electric beach grass blowing in a breeze.

Wild applause when they were done.

Her heart was beating hard.

"That was beautiful," her mother said when she came to the dressing room to get her. "You girls are so talented," she said, speaking to them all.

They didn't look at one another.

Miss Zena never told any of the parents what had happened, as far as Diana knew, but none of the girls who'd gotten caught in the dressing room signed up for ballet lessons the next year. When her mother asked her why she was giving up ballet, Diana had simply said, "It's for little girls."

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