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  • Ellie was a ballerina. That’s what they call the young ones who visualize starring in Giselle or Swan Lake, but whose talent is not yet refined, their technique not yet precise. Still, even at the age of 15, Ellie walked with her feet already severely pointing outward. Her turnout, as it’s called, was well beyond her young life. She dreamed of living in New York City. I dreamed of loving her forever.

    Ellie attended ballet classes twice a week on Wednesday afternoons after school and again on Saturday mornings. She always arrived early to do extra barre work. Once, I came along and watched. She progressed through a series of beautifully graceful movements: the demi plie, the full plie, the grande battement front. Ellie’s body seemed to float nearly to the floor, her back straight, and the lights in the room casting delicate shadows on her sinewy tendons and muscles. With each move, she sculpted herself into a new work of art.

    “Ballet is a dance executed by the human soul,” Alexander Pushkin, the Russian poet, was believed to have said. I was a freshman in high school; I didn’t know anything about Pushkin. But if I had heard someone quote the poet as I saw Ellie move through the elegant routine, I would have agreed.

    Ellie’s parents had insisted she see other people; they told her she was too young to be so serious with one boy. “I don’t know what to do,” Ellie told me. “I have to listen to my parents, but I can’t imagine what things will be like.”

    To dance is to sacrifice. The body is contorted into what the art needs. To be who she became required all of her. It is much like love, some have said. We give up pieces of ourselves, transform to meet the requests of our lovers, shape our souls into what is desired. To be in love, to experience it, requires all we have.

    After graduation, I left for Pennsylvania to attend college and Ellie took a plane with her parents to New York City. Her mother and father helped set up her apartment on the upper West Side. For years afterward, I heard the stories of Ellie’s training, auditions, and the dance troops that hired her. But in time, news about her faded.

    Many years later I made my first trip to New York City. It was for an interview for a job I didn’t want and probably wouldn’t get. After a day of meetings, I hopped in a cab somewhere near Rockefeller Center on my way to see an old colleague who had moved to New York a few years earlier. As we rode through the city, I saw a young girl, maybe 14 or 15 years old, behind a large street-level window in a building at a stoplight somewhere in Manhattan. She wore a black leotard and pink ballet slippers, her dark hair pulled tight into a ponytail, and she worked alone on the hardwood floor of what appeared to be the small studio of a dance school. The girl moved with restrained grace. And as the light turned green and the cab lurched forward, I moved my eyes away from her and out the taxi’s window into the evening’s collage of red taillights and white streetlights, blinding a precious memory.

    **from AFTER OPIUM: Stories (Kindle Edition)
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