The thing about dance competitions is that the heavy silk of the stage lights expose your secrets. There is nowhere to hide, no curtain to wrap around your soul because the stage here isn’t even raised; it is more like an arena, with seats climbing up the walls of the town hall theatre like animals escaping from a sinkhole or fleeing from the fires that devour the forests in the hotter seasons. Pay turns and twists just a few metres behind me, the soft pastels of her show dress hugging her behind before jutting out into a comfortable ruff at her hips.
And, in the moment it takes for her to bend her thighs slightly, her toes and heels pivoting, a stance ready for a plié or a pirouette or one of those other fancy moves I can do but never bother to learn their names – it doesn’tmatterthat her theoretical knowledge is better than mine. It doesn’t matter than I’m a broken boy with a sad heart and leaping soul. It doesn’t matter, just for a few lonely seconds before we go on stage, if we win or not. If we lose and she picks Max,fine. I won’t stop loving her. If we win and she picks me,great. But I won’t love her any less and I might not even love her more, because whilst Payton is one of the most challenging and talented girls – onandoff the dance floor – that I’ve ever had the privilege to be friends with, her ability to win something that demonstrates nothing more than her ability for those few minutes on that day of that year, means nothing to me. It means that she tries and she succeeds or fails, and I am not going to be the one to tell her that my love for her is conditional on whether she can win us the trophy. If fighting with Max is going to mess my chance at a decent friendship with her, I will lay off him and Eliza. Because as I know, a guycanbe friends with a girl and not make a move. Thatiswithin our limitations as males.
That’s another thing about dance competitions. They split the dancers almost in two. They do. Either you come out of it with the biggest ego (whether you went in with one or not) because you won or you got the louder applause when you went up against your rival – or, it humbles you to win something for your talent, or even to lose. Because I challenge even Max not to be proud to know this girl who promptly saunters a couple of metres into the air with her arms spread out like wings, her legs pushed out into a confident split that makes a few onlookers gawp with jealousy or regret or some other emotion that adults feel when they look at children and think of themselves at that age. She makes her dancing look effortless, as if it always has and always will be easy as breathing to her.
Before I know it, the weighty glare of the competition lights swivel so that they focus on the slippery-shine floor instead of the dancers. The audience erupts into the kind of applause that you can tell is for politeness sake in place of the sought after positive appraisal. The three girls who had been doing their group performance to a tap arrangement tumble off the arena floor, laughing or crying – I can’t tell which, holding on to each other’s hands as if by doing so it is grounding them, the very building of the foundations of a memory that won’t be forgotten in ten years or in twenty or forty. Because adults can be right about some things, and these being the days of our lives are one of them. Whatever we do in the future, whether we follow or ballet shoes or our jazz ones or our patent leather special ones we reserve for weekends and walking the dogs, no matter who we become or what we do, these days will always be the ones we remember fondly. Even if, dare I say, our childhood has been tainted with anger and rejection and all those emotions that children feel but adults never seem to truly understand.
The lights shuffle in their sockets to point towards the ceiling. I signal to Payton – it’s starting, get over here! She smooths her hair with her palm and, again as if it’s normal for us, links her fingers through mine. I don’t try and find Max’s eyes so I can gloat about it, because I don’t think Payton means to hurt him. What I do think, though, is that she is in love with Max’s friendship and in love with me for my…for, I don’t know. I don’t even know if I’m right. I just know that, as she whispers, “Here goes nothing,” into the approaching music, I squeeze her hand so tightly that I’m starting to feel like I might need to win her affection with the dance.
The only thing that scares me is that Max will dance better than me tonight, and all my seasons will disappear to the harsh winter that is her best friend and her boyfriend rolled into one. All I can do is hope that these lights might crack Pay, that the secrets in her eyes will be exposed and her dance with me will, if nothing else, prove to Max that Elliot Graham can be one hell of a companion. That Elliot’s secrets are safe with Pay, and hers are, if not now then at least in the future, safe with me.