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ELOISE - Lou Gardner

Illustration by Martin Stubbington //

Did we get around to talking about our grandmothers? I don’t remember yours. Do you remember her? My mother’s mother was the young mother of a young mother. She was younger than grandmothers are supposed to be, but she looked very, very old. She asked me to call her by her first name, which was Sylvie. She never married, so she died with her maiden name intact, which was Silvan. She wore pastel silk scarves tied around her throat. She wore heels every day until she died, but she took them off every time she danced, and she danced often. She smoked hand-rolled cigarettes and policed my mother’s cooking, nails, and French.

She was born in Paris at the turn of the century. She said she survived the war because no one had gotten around to killing her by the time it ended. She showed up on the doorstep of my parents’ one-bedroom Santa Monica apartment in 1945 after four years of radio silence. She weighed eighty-four pounds. She was balding. The insides of her calves were swollen and blue, as if all the veins had burst at the same time and lost the energy to put themselves together again. She carried a red leather handbag and spoke only five words of English.

When my mother opened the door that afternoon, she was baking a macaroni casserole. It was the hottest day of the summer. She had a cup towel throw over her shoulder and melted cheese in her hair. I was three years old and screaming, my arms wrapped around her leg. She looked like shit.

My mother and grandmother looked at one another, at a loss.

Salut,” my mother said, finally, the first word of French she’d spoken since she’d arrived in America.

My grandmother moved into the guest bedroom, learned some English, and started teaching ballet at a studio in town. A year before I was old enough, she enrolled me in classes. I can still feel her hands tightening the elastic on my baby-pink leather slippers. She couldn’t drive, so we rode bicycles to and from the studio, always stopping off at a corner shop on the way home, where she’d flirt with the cashier with the little English she knew, and buy me a strawberry-banana soda.

The first thing my grandmother bought in America was a beautiful set of leather-bound English dictionaries, the same ones you and I poured over that summer we spent together in ’62. She spent all of her savings and brought them straight into the house from the car of a traveling salesman who showed up at the door one afternoon when she was home alone with me. When we were together, she made me do the talking. She asked me about my friends, about my enemies, about my earliest memories, about the books I was reading in school. I was five, six, seven years old. How much could I have had to say? She spoke to me like a woman, so I answered like one. I spoke at length, in the biggest words I knew. When I said something confusing or interesting or difficult, she would touch the tip of my nose with the tip of her finger and say, “Let’s look it up.” We taught each other to speak English like true, smart, American women.

She only spoke at length about herself when she smoked, which was first thing in the morning and very late at night, before I woke up and after I was already in bed. On the rare occasions I caught her, she would pull me up into her lap, and I would breathe her smoke and listen.

Mostly, she wanted to talk about Paris in the summer, about the clothes women wore and the smell of the Seine. In my mind, the canal was crystal clear, and the city was painted the same colors of her taffeta scarves—peach, lavender, and mint. To me, the street names and neighborhoods sounded like smoke. I couldn’t spell them or even repeat them back to her. The city was enchanted in this way—only she could pronounce the words that would bring it to life.

In 1942, my mother moved to California with my father, an American theater owner she’d met in Paris on his European lecture circuit. She was an art student, an aspiring set designer, and she peppered him with so many questions after his talk that he asked her to dinner. It’s hard to picture her then—her hair long, flirting in French. She asked him to marry her, and he did, within the year and in the aisle of his theater in Los Angeles.

The building was an old Spanish-style Catholic church gutted and repurposed as a theater. The pews were burned and replaced with three hundred and fifty seats upholstered in red imitation velvet. The white stucco walls and vaulted ceilings were painted red, but the original wooden beams were left exposed. The pulpit and alter were torn out and replaced with a movie screen and a black wooden stage just deep enough for a modest ballet. The previous owner who had commissioned the remodeling planned to screen silent movies and host vaudeville acts on Saturday nights but died of a heart attack before the renovations were finished. The building was abandoned for five years until my father bought it in 1934 for next to nothing and decided to convert it into something he considered more respectable.

My father believed in high art, in hierarchies within creative circles, in film critics and art openings and hors d’oeuvres. The grand opening of the theater was a lavish Christmas party in 1935. He wrote invitations on thick, embossed parchment to elite ballet companies and acclaimed classical musicians and local art patrons. He believed true art was something only the elite could afford, that they hoarded precious bottles of it in their wine cellars. He begged them to come and they did.

Critics attributed the theater’s success to its charming owner and acoustics, but my father’s belief in high art was exceeded only by his belief in God. For him, the place never stopped being a church. He believed that even though the pews were burned, the Holy Ghost still haunted the place. Once I was old enough to sit still for the duration of a ballet, my father would keep me up hours past my bedtime to watch them dance. We would sit in the very back row, where a draft from the entrance would sometimes drift in. The music would crash against the walls and the people would bend their bodies in impossible ways and my very small heart would swell until it felt like it was too big for my chest. My father would squeeze my hand and whisper in my ear so softly I had to strain to hear him beneath the music. “Do you feel it?” he’d ask, and when I nodded, he would say, “That’s God.”

My father didn’t care much for the logistics of God, for pastors or priests or Sunday schools. I was baptized, but on his stage, the same one where my parents said their wedding vows. His love of Christ swallowed up my mother’s lack of Christ, and if she ever had thoughts of raising us any other way, she never voiced them. I was only ever a Christian child, raised in a church others mistook for a venue.

In spite of the theater’s prestigious reputation, my father insisted my little ballet studio use the theater for our spring recitals and winter shows. My grandmother taught me how to dance, but my father taught me how to perform. He bought me a small pallet of makeup and showed me how to darken just the corners of my eyes to make them look larger than they were, how to apply blush to the apples of my cheeks. During the studio’s dress rehearsals, the other girls and I would stand in a crooked little line with our toes pointed, the spotlight cooking our faces and nearly blinding us. My father, sitting in the very back row of the theater, would call out to us from the dark, “I can’t see you smile!” and we would pull our cheeks and lips back so hard our faces would hurt.

As a child, I was always and intimately aware of a presence watching me from just beyond the edge of my consciousness, like the dark silhouette of someone beyond and below the bright edge of the stage when I performed. I prayed incessantly. I prayed before and after my performances, before and after ballet class. I prayed before meals and before bed, after bathing and swimming and school. I wasn’t asking for anything. When I prayed, I was doing what I always wanted to do on stage but never did, which was get down on my knees, shield my eyes from the light, and peer out into the dark to catch a glimpse of my father’s face smiling back at me.

My mother had me on May 8, 1942. My hair came in thick, wavy, and black. I looked out of place in her arms. Three years later, an eccentric and balding old French woman showed up at her door and moved into her back bedroom. We were my mother’s tells, my grandmother and me, and I think she resented us for that.

When the stream of letters from her family dried up in the midst of the war, my mother mourned by becoming an American. She set about shedding any part of her past that had survived the war as if to prove to herself that she was comfortable with loss, that it wasn’t loss at all but something less. She stopped speaking her first language and swallowed her accent whole. She steeped her long, dark hair in bleach and cropped it to her chin with kitchen scissors. She abandoned any pretense of becoming a set designer. She stacked her French paperback novels and her grandmother’s recipes and the photos of her sisters in a shoe box she shoved in the bottom drawer of her armoire. If she was French, her life was tragic; if she was American, her life was simple and happy and whole.

My father married a French artist who refused to speak French or make art. My father bought my mother beautiful clothing, all satin and beading, that she hung in her closet with the tags still attached where it stayed for decades, unworn. He took her to glamorous events at his theater where guests were delighted by what remained of her accent, by the way her words seemed to catch behind her teeth. They petted and spoke to her as if she were a chinchilla or capuchin monkey, some foreign pet. She went to performances and cocktail parties less and less.

I guess my mother was right to blame my grandmother for the person I became but only because my grandmother insisted on raising me. She dressed me in pink tights and black leotards and showed me how to set my hand on the bar, just right. I danced often enough to wear through the soles of my ballet slippers every six months or so, and my grandmother kept the thin, grey carcasses in a hat box in her closet as proof of all the dancing I’d done. I steeped myself in French culture like my mother had steeped her hair in bleach. I learned ballet instead of baseball and wore soft dresses instead of blue jeans. I even learned to speak English like an old French woman does, from a dictionary and American sitcoms. I grew up wanting to move to Paris like my mother had grown up wanting to move to Los Angeles. Maybe it’s just the fate of girls to grow up wanting to be anything other than their mothers.

My grandmother had a stroke in 1952. My mother moved her to a nursing home in Glendale, a drive across town I couldn’t make at ten years old. When she cleaned out the guest bedroom where my grandmother had lived for almost a decade, she threw out the boxes of ballet slippers and used the extra closet space to store the pristine silk dresses and unworn sequined coats my father had bought her over the years.

My father, who always had a soft spot for French women, would drive me across town to see Sylvie every other Sunday. When we pulled up, she would be waiting for us in a rocking chair out on the porch of the nursing home, an antebellum-style house built the year she was born. Even though it was mid-morning, she would be smoking a cigarette and rolling another in her lap as if to say, “I’m ready to spill the beans.”

I would sit across from her in one of the many long silk dresses she’d bought me with my hands folded and start. I’d tell her about my friends and enemies, about my fears and hopes and the books I was reading in school. I would talk for two straight hours, babbling furiously, dumbly, desperately, nothing like the smart American woman she’d raised me to be. She would smoke cigarette after cigarette after cigarette, her hands always rolling the next in her lap, half of her face smiling when I laughed at a joke I’d made. She didn’t understand a single thing I said. After the stroke, she forgot how to speak English. All the words we’d taught each other were locked up tight in the half of her head that was melting down her face like candle wax.

For years, I begged my mother to come with me on our visits to translate. She could listen to her mother speak French and speak to me in English. She could sit between us, three generations of women in rocking chairs, and help us make sense of each other. She could pronounce all the street names and neighborhoods in Paris, bring that city back to life, breathe her mother’s smoke and tell me stories about the boys she used to love and the things she used to wear and the smell of the Seine in the summer.

My mother found reasons not to come every other Sunday until Sylvie died. When she did, she left me stacks of diaries written in French she’d kept her whole life, or at least the ones that had survived the war. She wrote her will in French, and she left my mother everything else, mostly a closet full of heels and silk scarves my mother sold on consignment. I kept the diaries in a shoe box I tied in pink ribbon, a gift to my future self, the one who spoke French. I resolved to read them sitting on the banks of the crystal clear Seine, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette, in that city my grandmother once breathed to life.

I was five. “Go look,” my grandmother had whispered, and I’d gotten down my hands and knees and crawled right up to her feet until my nose was only an inch away. They were mottled and calloused. Her toenails were split and black, and her heels were cracking like dry earth. “You know what that’s from?” I shook my head. “Living. You gotta use what you’ve got while you’ve got it. You can’t take it with you when you go.” With that, she grabbed my ankles, held me nearly upside-down, and kissed the soles of my feet wildly until I was giggling, nearly hysterical. “See, these things are much too tender. You better get to work on ‘em.”

When I went on pointe, I would untie the pink satin ribbons, peel back the stiff leather, and unwrap my feet to find them worn down to the bone, blistered and bloody. The limp bodies of my discarded shoes were stained with blood, but I packed them carefully away in boxes in my closet like trophies, where they were safe from my mother. When I was young, our family’s fridge was full of white light. My mother was always throwing out food before it had the chance to expire. She asked my father not to bring her flowers for her birthday. She filled our lawn in with gravel. She ignored me when I begged her for a puppy.

“You don’t want a dog. Dogs die,” she said.

As a teenage girl, I wore my body like a ballet slipper. I said to myself, shoes are for ruining. I brushed my hair until the ends split. I missed dentist appointments. I never put on sunscreen. I wore heels everyday but went barefoot whenever I had the chance. I loved the feel of grass and asphalt and cool tile beneath my feet, but more than that, I loved the fissures that formed along the edges of my heels. I felt that they were proof of something, something I’d earned.

I mistook my body for myself. I kept my waist under twenty-five inches, my hair past my shoulders, my shoulders thrown back. I thought I was my hands, my belly, the moles on the insides of my thighs. I wasn’t any more reluctant to show someone my breasts than I was to show someone my face. I couldn’t quite differentiate between my ass and arms and public mound and jaw and ears. It was all mine, it was all me, and there was nothing I wanted more as a young woman than to be seen.

After a performance, I would leave the theater with my skin still wet and warm. As I walked, the sweat would dry and cool my face. By the time I arrived home, I would be shivering. In my bedroom, I stood alone before my mirror where I had seen myself last and instead of a golden thing saw nothing. I wasn’t anyone for myself. Maybe I was only myself when I was performing for others, or much more likely, maybe I had never been anything at all.

I hated the idea of my body someday buried in the ground, still shiny and new and unused. I was reminded of the rows of beaded blouses and silk skirts hanging untouched in my mother’s closet with their tags still attached, and the terrible sadness seeing the unworn clothing had evoked in me as a child. I resolved to wear myself through to the bone and go to my grave bloody and torn. I was something more on stage, something made of gold and light, bursting and breaking. Every inch of myself — my body being myself — was exposed and watched. On stage, my blood pumped and my movements meant something. I was my body, and my body was a beautiful thing worth regarding. I knew, beyond the bright edge of the stage, there was an audience, a God bearing witness to all the ways I suffered, won, and healed, so I danced until I bled before them to prove I had lived.

As a teenage girl, my body was a resource I intended to exhaust. I wasn’t saving myself for anything. I wasn’t saving my skin from the sun, I wasn’t saving my shoes for a special occasion, and I wasn’t saving myself for marriage. Abstinence, modesty, and purity were not values in the church I grew up in. Men fucked each other in the green room while women stripped down to their tights and spun across stages before crowds of strangers. When the woman with her doctor’s bag full of sanitary belts and diagrams showed up in my freshman-year PE class, I took detailed notes. She warned us sex could wear us out or through or down, and I resolved to take the first lover I could find. What a romantic idea, that I could spend my body on love. I didn’t feel like innocence was something I lost, but rather, something I crushed like a shucked clove of garlic beneath the flat of a blade. There was a give to it. I pushed, and my innocence gave way beneath the force of my palm and the flat of the knife — not disappearing, but gushing pungent, savory juice.

In December of 1956, my dance company was contracted to perform at the opening of a new theater in Hollywood, a large, glossy venue with crystal chandeliers and bathrooms tiled in white imitation marble. The theater’s owners and investors were nothing like my father: they valued art as a means of wealth, not proof of it. What was valuable was not what was fine but what was commercially appealing, what was immediately accessible not buried in deep, intimate circles. They spent their money papering their theater’s walls in glossy, ridged wallpaper and stocking their stage with beautiful girls whose bodies bent in impossible ways.

I found in those strange men an unconditional love. They were not there to deconstruct my choreography; they were there to imagine wrapping their hands around my waist and wonder if their thumbs and fingers would meet. They were there to see my feet bleed, to see my tights tear, to see stray hairs come loose from my bun. After the show, I walked out into the lobby, my hair still sweaty and pulled up into a bun and my eyes still lined with glitter. I’d wrapped a wool skirt around my waist but made it clear with everything else about myself that I was a performer, eager for another performance.

The man who invited me out for a drink was the brother of a financier from Chicago. It was his first time at a ballet. He said I’d danced beautifully, as if he knew what it was to dance beautifully. He complimented my eyes and then my skirt. He bought me three glasses of champagne. In the backseat of his car, I undressed with relief. I took off my underwear like another woman might slip off a pair of heels. For me, clothing was a formality it pained me to indulge. When I removed my bra, he was enchanted. His affection was imprecise but generous. He wanted me without wondering what it was about me that he wanted. When I moaned, he moaned. I pressed my toes to the spongy ceiling of his car and laughed in his face while he watched me make love to him with his eyes wide and his jaw hanging loose.

I conflated low expectations and freedom. I was sixteen years old. I thought these people who took me as I was were setting me free. I thought they loved me better than my father did, than the crowds who paid good money to sit silently and let me dance. I found it was much easier to fuck on my belly than to dance on pointe. I bled from my womb instead of my feet. I filled shoeboxes with stained panties instead of bloody ballet slippers. I got drunk and stripped naked and fell down. Men saw me in all my mediocrity and wanted it anyways. Their love came so easily that I didn’t notice I was paying for it. I had so much time and heart and dignity at sixteen that I didn’t know I was buying love with it until it was nearly gone.

I wore my mother’s wedding gown to my senior prom, a silk slip with a beaded chiffon overlay, simple enough to pass for a cocktail dress when paired with pink kitten heels and a matching patent leather belt. Among the other girls’ silk, chiffon, and tulle, pinks and soft blues and yellows, my beaded white dress was not out of place. Still, it felt heavy and unfamiliar on my shoulders and arms, and the neckline sagged where my breasts had failed to replicate my mother’s.

In the week in June between my last day of high school and the graduation ceremony, my father had taken me shopping for a new dress at a department store in Fairfax. The employee working the juniors’ department piled dresses for me on a velvet pouf in the dressing room. I sat on the floor in my underwear for half an hour before emerging and gently telling the eager clerk and my father that nothing had fit right.

Late one morning that week in June, I came home between ballet classes to find my mother leaving for her monthly hair appointment. I said goodbye and lingered in the kitchen for a few minutes after the door closed to make sure she wasn’t coming back for her wallet or to check the stove before I went upstairs and let myself into my parents’ room.

Crossing through the doorway, I felt like a very small child committing a forbidden act. The terror was silly and unfounded, but it tingled in my face and hands. I stepped silently, on my toes. The expanse of carpet between the door and bed and bathroom felt tender and virgin under my feet. I was surprised to see that my parents’ bed was unmade, that there were socks and pajamas on the ground. I wondered which side belonged to my mother. Against the far wall of the room was a tall oak wardrobe with three drawers and two French doors that opened out. I’d never been told not to touch it — its sacred and private nature were plain, self-evident. In my mind, it was a hulking tomb, a massive hull twice my height. I was surprised to find the drawers were light in my hands and slid opened easily.

The first drawer was filled with identical pairs of white socks, simple crew socks my mother wore only within the house. The socks were bundled in neat, loyal pairs, their bodies rolled together into soft little balls that filled the body of the drawer. I closed it quickly, confused and ashamed. I almost stopped my movement downwards, as if I needed to protect my mother from the intruder I was pretending to be. I continued on.

The second drawer was what I had expected, but it still jarred me to see it: my mother’s underwear, rough cotton briefs and satin bloomers and garter belts edged with eyelet lace. Beside them, there were rows of hose in shades of taupe and black and, surprisingly, one pair in scarlet red. Pushing the soft rows of hose aside, I found three paperback novels with simple, unrevealing covers I opened to find were written in French.

In one of the French doors, a little antique key with a rose-colored tassel extended from a keyhole. Holding my breath, I turned it and felt a satisfying click. Inside, there was a single row of thirty or forty coats, gowns, and shawls in turquoise satin, black velvet, rabbit fur, gold sequins, silver beads, red wool. There were enough outfits for ten seasons of ballets, of operas, of musicals, cocktail parties and charity balls and birthday dinners and Valentines Days. From sleeves and hems and necklines, white price tags stood out against the fabric like dandruff on dark hair.

In the bottom drawer, I found a handful of stiff, glossy rectangular boxes of different sizes that neatly fit together like perfect puzzle pieces within the margins of the drawer. I opened the first — a shallow box sitting atop the others — to find a pair of elbow-length white satin gloves wrapped in pale blue tissue paper. The drawer was packed with my mother’s wedding dress and garments, her bra and slip and shoes and veil, folded neatly into little boxes, untouched for two decades. I slipped the items on as I found them — the veil before the gown, the heels before the garter belt — shedding tissue paper until it rose like mist around my knees.

It’s hard to picture her then — climbing on stage, her hair long and dark, loose around her face, her English still stained with French. She was bigger then, full enough to fill the dress loose on my frame, but everything about her must have been bigger: flirting with the American theater owner on his European lecture circuit, fighting with her mother, boarding ships across the Atlantic, painting canvas backdrops for the stage with huge, sweeping motions of her arms.

It’s hard enough imagining that woman without guessing what she’d think of the woman she’d become, but it’s also easier that way. It’s easier for me to be angry with the woman pulling her car into the garage, her roots touched up, if I tell myself the woman who last wore this dress would be angry with her, too. It’s less lonely that way, if the difference between my mother and me is a matter of time, if something other than her nature has made her this way, if she was once another way, if she was once the kind of woman who could have painted canvases two stories high, if she was once almost someone else, if she was once almost the kind of woman who made macaroni casseroles the size of the oven and started huge fights with my father and took me shopping for prom dresses made of tulle, it’s easier if I can imagine she once wanted to be a mother, that she once dreamt of a daughter she loved, if she loved me, once.

In the fall semester of my senior year, I went to an audition in Santa Monica for a prestigious ballet company based out of New York. There were five men in suits sitting side by side on folding chairs. There was a choreographer, a reedy blond French man whose nose seemed broken. There were forty other girls, their waists under twenty-five inches. I was tall, and this company preferred their dancers tall. The girls under 5’ 6” were wasting their time. Two company dancers in black trousers and turtlenecks sat in the hallway, chain smoking. Even sitting down, it was clear they were at least 5’9”. I wore a black cashmere sweater, a black leotard, and baby pink tights. I did not have to introduce myself. The men in suits had my photograph. The choreographer kept his eyes on me. My toes, encased in the stiff plaster and satin of my point shoes, were at least two inches off the ground. I wasn’t the best, but I was tall enough.

My callback was scheduled for the first week of February. The company would pay for my flight to New York. I spent the winter dreaming not of the city but of the airport, of the turnstiles and laminate desks and tinny voice on the intercom, pronouncing the departure times and capital cities. I dreamt of the low-pile carpet and the plastic chairs lined up before the high windows where people in suits watched the planes take off. I dreamt of the smell of cigarettes and tarmac and burnt coffee. I dreamt of all the doors leading to all the planes, neat little signs gesturing to curtained portals anyone could just walk through and disappear.

In the winter of our senior year, the girls in my class took on a familiar affect. They looked tired and hopeful and unhinged. They looked desperate. They looked like me. We’d made our beds, or made up our minds, or made our decisions, though we couldn’t remember making them. They didn’t want to practice their typing. We wanted to pack up a car with everything we owned. I showed up late for ballet class. I hoarded bottles of gin in my underwear drawer. They wanted to cut their hair. They wanted to act up. They had applied for colleges, but they hadn’t heard back. They’d accepted proposals but hadn’t been married. The small, daily labors of our lives would either pay off or they wouldn’t. It was either all for nothing or all worth it in the end. We were seventeen, and we were already almost done becoming what we would always be.

I was almost the only thing I’d ever wanted to be. There was no talk of college, of marriage, of career. I was never going to be a secretary. I was never meant to be a wife. I didn’t want it, and no one wanted it on my behalf. I thought marriage was a fitful night’s sleep, and I wanted to stay up all night. I had so little practice being anything other than a dancer. I only ever wanted to fill my closet from floor to ceiling with ballet shoes. I only ever wanted to get my feet dirty. I only ever wanted to get down on my knees and cover my eyes. I only ever wanted to see my father waving back.

I wasn’t second guessing the options I’d rejected, just wondering if there weren’t options I hadn’t considered. I survived on light like bread and water. If not my father, then who? If not a stage, then where? If not blood, then what? The men who fucked me in their cars were not something to build a future from, but they were something. They were proof of an alternative, of another life in which I was free from the things I’d always wanted.

I would have lost my virginity again if I could. Instead, I dreamed about airports. I clipped out a photo of the Toronto airport in the newspaper, and an advertisement in TIME magazine for flights to Cabo San Lucas. I found a travel magazine in the waiting room of my dentist’s office and folded it into my purse. I checked travel guides out of the library that I never returned. I sent away for weather charts and train schedules and restaurant recommendations. I wrote inquiry letters in response to listings I found for home-stays in Tuscany, language intensives in Mexico City. I asked for photos and pamphlets and descriptions of the rooms that I glued to pages of an empty scrapbook I kept between my mattresses.

I was looking for something, and I found it in Las Vegas in the summer, in southern Alaska in the winter, in the freeway motels in Utah in the spring. It was something dramatic, somewhere as lonely as I was. I used to think the sensation of watching my hands disappear when I sat alone in my room after ballet class was the worst thing. I thought the worst thing I could be was nothing. I had made becoming something my life’s work.

In spite of myself, I spent the winter dreaming about those velvet curtains in the airport. Maybe, if I were to actually disappear, I wouldn’t have to be so scared. I would be free to fear something new, to want something new. Maybe I had never liked dancing in the first place. Maybe I was just in it for the strawberry-banana sodas. Maybe I just wanted to see my grandmother flirt with the clerk at the corner shop. Maybe, in all reality, I was only ever willing or impatient to leave my life. Maybe I only ever fluctuated between incredibly passive and incredibly restless. Maybe I was only ever the opposite of stubborn—maybe my body was a box perched precariously on a high shelf, and all anyone needed to do was reach up and lift my edge to send me tumbling down into their arms.

What had I been doing all this time? I never learned to speak French. I never caught a ride with my mom to Glendale on a Sunday. I never tore the tags off those sequined coats in her closet. My feet were bloody, but I was still intact. I was worn down, but I had decades left in my skin. I was seventeen, and already I’d lost sight of the narrative arc behind me. I wasn’t ready to become what I would always be.

The night before my flight to New York, I called up the brother of the financier who sometimes bought me drinks and fucked me in his car. I told him I wanted to go dancing, so he picked me up at eight and drove us across town to a little jazz club in Hollywood where I climbed on the stage and twisted and clicked my heels and bent my body in impossible ways. Outside of the studio and the theater, I only ever wore heels. I only ever drank whiskey with honey, and this night was no exception. I was only ever a ballerina. I was only ever light on my feet. The stage was less of a stage and more of a dais, a floor raised a couple feet off the floor. I knew where to go but not how to leave. When I danced, I imagined I was swimming across the Atlantic. I closed my eyes when I turned, and I lost balance. I looked down and saw my ankles bend in impossible ways before I heard them snap.

Just like that, I was someone else. Just like that, I was lying on my back in an ambulance, strapped in with nylon belts. If there had ever been a plan, there wasn’t one anymore. Outside the windows, the city rushed by. It was the oddest sensation — I felt as though I were vertical, as though I were strapped to a wall. The world was not rushing by — I was shooting skyward. I knew I would soon crest the peaks of the Santa Monica mountains. Los Angeles was hundreds, then thousands of feet below, a valley too deep and distant and wide to see the bottom of. From this height, the place would look like a dimple in the planet, and the future I’d imagined for myself there blinked out of sight. The lights outside the windows were stars. I came to a stop, and the gate below my feet opened wide. I was drenched in white light and warm air. Disembodied gloved hands reached up, loosened the restraints, and took hold of me. Whatever planet this was, it was millions of miles from the one I knew, and that was enough.


Lou Gardner (he/him) is a trans, queer, and bipolar writer from Southern California. He holds a BA in Religious Studies and Professional Writing & Editing from the University of California Santa Barbara and briefly studied fiction at the MFA at University of Florida in Gainesville. His work has appeared in Mid-American Review and L'Esprit Literary Review and placed first in Darling Axe’s 2021 First Page Challenge and the Tennessee Williams Literary Festivals’ 2022 Very Short Fiction Contest.


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